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UH Professor Receives ACS PRF Doctoral New Investigator Award

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Natalie Thayer

Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, has been selected to receive an American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (ACS-PRF) Doctoral New Investigator (DNI) award for his proposed research on “Electrically Responsive and Locally Programmable Hydrogel Composites.”

Each year, the ACS-PRF holds a highly selective competition to award seed funding to top researchers in the petroleum field with a proven track record of producing innovative fundamental research. The DNI grant, which provides start-up funding for researchers who are within the first three years of an academic appointment as an assistant professor, aims to promote the careers of young faculty, support research of high scientific caliber and enhance the career opportunities of students through research experiences.

This award provides funding of $110,000 over two years and will support Yu’s research on developing and studying the fundamental properties of a new class of “smart” material—an electrically-responsive hydrogel composite that can be locally actuated, or internally stimulated.

Hydrogels are soft, adaptable and highly absorbent polymers with various applications ranging from everyday materials, such as contact lenses, to advanced biomedical tools, such as skin wound dressings. 

Some classes of responsive hydrogels, which are a type of “smart” material, are able to adapt to their environments by responding to external stimuli. But Yu wants to take this a step further by engineering a class of hydrogels that can also adapt to internal stimuli. Yu has proposed a strategy for creating a novel composite material made by integrating polymer-encapsulated, deformable nanoelectronics into responsive hydrogels.

With this grant, Yu and two of his Ph.D. students, Kyoseung Sim and LeiLei Shi, will conduct both experimental and theoretical investigations of the material.

Going forward, Yu said he looks forward to discovering potential applications for the hydrogel composite, particularly in the biomedical engineering field. In addition to advancing technology for tissue engineering and drug delivery, Yu said he envisions this material playing an important role in the development of soft robotics that can be used by surgeons in the operating room.

“Fundamental research is invaluable,” said Yu. “We have to really understand the material before we can move forward and look into practical applications.”

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