PME adds acclaimed water researcher to faculty

The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) has attracted Junhong Chen to the University of Chicago as a Professor of Molecular Engineering. He will also serve as the lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory.

Water availability, and the nexus between energy and water, represents one of the biggest challenges faced by humankind this century and beyond. Pritzker Molecular Engineering and Argonne are working to develop innovative solutions to meet these challenges, especially through new materials and device technologies.

“I think Argonne, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and others have what it takes to lead a coalition and make Chicago a major international hub for water research,” Chen said. ​“It’s important to point out that we are not creating something from scratch here. There is lots of great work in water already being done in Chicago. I think my role is to identify and create synergies among these efforts so we can have a greater collective impact on the world.”

Chen previously served as director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s (UWM’s) Industry-University Cooperative Research Center on Water Equipment and Policy, as well as program director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Engineering Research Centers program.

“Junhong has a wide breadth of experience within the water and energy space, particularly in sensor technologies. From his contributions to new materials research and technology development to his partnerships with industry, he brings significant assets to our work at PME,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering.

Chen joined the UWM faculty in 2003, and for the last several years, he has been a Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science/Engineering as well as an Excellence in Engineering Faculty Fellow in Nanotechnology at UWM.

In part stemming from Chen’s efforts, Milwaukee is an emerging hotbed for water research, so he brings the knowledge and connections he gained in his time there to his new roles.

“Proximity to the Great Lakes is a significant advantage for both Milwaukee and Chicago,” Chen said. ​“Lots of industries that work with water are in this region. There are a number of manufacturers that need access to high-quality fresh water, and the Great Lakes provide that. There are also several organizations — environmental or otherwise — that have interest in water and are located near the Great Lakes.”

Chen’s most recent research has focused on nanomaterial innovations for sustainable energy generation and a more sustainable environment, with an emphasis on novel sensors for detecting pollutants in water. He has published more than 250 journal articles, with over 12,000 citations.

Chen has extensive experience with technology commercialization and building fruitful partnerships with industry. His research has led to seven issued patents, eight pending patents, and 13 licensing agreements. His startup company, NanoAffix, received the 2016 Wisconsin Innovation Award.

He was named a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2013 and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2016. He earned the 2016 International Association of Advanced Materials Medal as well as numerous awards from UWM and the UW system.

This story has been adapted from one published by Argonne National Laboratory.