Game Changer

Iconic professor Dibakar Bhattacharyya is applying his profuse knowledge of membranes to the world of manufacturing.

Alumni Professor Dibakar Bhattacharyya— ubiquitously known as “DB”—has forged a successful 47-year career as a chemical engineering professor and researcher fueled by his serious interest in creating clean water through advanced membranes and other technologies. After spending nearly a half-century at the University of Kentucky, DB sports one of the most impressive resumes in the College of Engineering. His 180+ refereed journal articles, 21 book chapters, two books and nine U.S. patents in the area of functionalized membranes and water detoxification have made him a renowned authority in the fight against water pollution. In addition to being one of the PIs in the membrane and environment- related area for two recent large grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, he has received continuous funding for over 30 years, and received over $4 million in the last 10 years.

“Dr. Bhattacharyya is a natural in the pursuit of clever engineering solutions to problems based on the right science,” confirms longtime associate Subhas K. Sikdar of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory.

Yet it would be a mistake to think DB is coasting toward retirement; in fact, in the last two years, the recent President-elect of the North American Membrane Society has been the principal player in a collaborative water reuse technology development project that is pushing him to integrate nanoparticles in polymer membranes on a large scale.

A few years ago, Southern Company approached DB about collaborating on a new kind of water recycling technology dealing with coal-fired power water reuse; however, there was a crucial stipulation.

“They said our work would need to result in a fully scaled product down the road. It could not be a ‘research only’ project,” DB explains with a chuckle. “This was exciting for me. I knew I had to find a company that could help in the scale-up of the technology. This required collaborative work with a membrane company.”

DB is an energetic and innovative scientist internationally recognized for his pioneering research in the area of functionalized ligand membranes for high capacity adsorption of metal ions in water.
—Norman Li, President of NL Chemical Technology, Member of the National Academy of Engineering

ULTURA Co., is a membrane manufacturer based in Oceanside, Calif. As their senior visiting scientist, DB works with the technical team to scale-up pore-functionalized and positively-charged nanofiltration membranes to a level that will improve selective desalination to toxic metals removal and organic destruction from water. In the last year, UK has licensed eight functionalized membrane patents to ULTURA and one of the advanced nanofiltration membranes has led to a commercial product. They recently signed a research and development cooperation contract with Chevron to test functionalized membranes for produced water treatment. Recent work by DB and his Ph.D. students with other companies includes funded research projects with Compact Membranes, NEI Corp., Osmonics and Huber Corporation. DB also does collaborative membrane development work with Professor Rong Wang at the Singapore Membrane Technology Center and recently signed a memorandum of understanding to further enhance interactions.

DB says he draws much of his inspiration from nature and that the membranes were developed with the help of his team of talented graduate and undergraduate students.

“When thinking about using membranes to remove pollutants from water, you want materials that can change shape, can shrink and expand. Nature knows how to do this! While we can’t directly copy nature, we can learn from it and mimic some of its processes.”