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David Kisailus

Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering
Winston Chung Professor of Energy Innovation
David Kisailus
From Nature to Engineering
In the Kisailus Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, researchers look to nature’s inspiration in designing the next generation engineering products and materials. Building nanostructures based on nature has multiple potential advantages, including low-cost, environmentally benign processing, exquisite control of architectural design, and the energy efficiency offered by complex living organisms.

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Q: Where did the inspiration for your research come from?
It’s hard to beat nature for inspiration. Over the course of millions of years, nature has figured out how to use simple building blocks from the environment to create a wide range of complex structures, and they do it under natural conditions. Consider as examples the tough abalone shell, the ultrahard teeth of the chiton or the amazing hammer-like arm of the mantis shrimp. Many biomineralizing species can produce remarkably sophisticated three-dimensional composite materials. We study the actual structure of these organisms, understand its mechanical properties, and translate that into real-life structures. We also study how these creatures produce their biominerals and use similar strategies to produce non-biological materials for energy and environmental- based applications such as solar conversion, batteries for storage, and catalysts for clean water.

Q: Why is your work important? How does it benefit society?
Using bio-inspired routes to produce nanostructures with controlled size and shape, we can construct a wide range of materials for energy, environmental and structural applications. In addition, we often use environmentally benign processing, like Nature does, to make these engineering materials. From a structural point of view, we are producing light-weight and nearly indestructible materials that can be created for body armor, aircraft, vehicles and much more. Of course, one of the big challenges we all face is finding solutions to our energy and environmental problems. Everyone can benefit from new ways of producing and storing energy. Thus, a large focus of our current research is to produce materials, in an environmentally-friendly manner, that have applications for energy conversion and storage, including photovoltaics, batteries, and catalysts for water purification.

Q: Is there a reason your research is focused on biomimetics of sea creatures?
We have found many excellent examples of materials we would like to imitate in invertebrate marine animals, so for the time being, we don’t have to look further. These creatures are researcher-friendly because they have evolved processes using inexpensive, very abundant materials in our earth’s crust to solve problems we would like to solve. Finally, we get to go to the ocean to collect some of these. Who doesn't like going to the ocean? 

Q: Tell us about your research with the Winston Chung Global Energy Center.
I met Winston in early 2010 based on his interests in my lab. Winston had similar thoughts regarding biologically inspired processes, as he was inspired by the human cell to create new types of long-lasting batteries, upon which his companies and fortune are based. We immediately formed a bond, connected by our passion for biologically inspired research. Since that time, Winston has given generously to UCR and the Bourns College of Engineering. He endowed two professorships, established the Winston Chung Global Energy Center at the college’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology, and gave six research grants to engineering faculty. I was honored to receive one of the endowed professorships and one of the research grants. The Chung grant will enable bio-inspired research to study the Chung rare earth lithium ion phosphate batteries so we can understand the processes that control their size and shape, with the goal of improving their reliability and performance. As with our other research, we’re hoping to use low-temperature, environmentally benign processes to produce more efficient batteries that don’t use current rare earths such as yttrium.

Q: In what ways are you encouraging students to pursue careers in science and engineering?
When I was an undergraduate at Drexel University, a mentor focused me toward my career by giving me a research project. Now, I invite undergraduates from multiple disciplines including chemical and environmental engineering, materials science and engineering, molecular biology, chemistry, physics, mechanical, and electrical engineering to participate in research projects in my lab. My hope is that they, too, will be inspired to pursue science- and/ or engineering-related careers. My lab also shares our research with the public. My students and I recently took our sea creatures and the new engineering materials we are making to the Riverside Metropolitan Museum for a day of free public demonstrations. Part of the museum’s Citizen Science program, our workshop will hopefully inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. In addition, we were invited to the San Diego Zoo to present on Nature-inspired materials. Since then, we have set up a collaboration with them to bring local middle school students, mentored by my undergraduates, to the Zoo and the Riverside Metropolitan Museum to present collaborative research based in my lab.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to answer?
One of the biggest challenges faced today is our energy and environmental crisis. There is plenty of research to make alternative energy forms, but many are quite expensive and can not easily replace fossil fuels. Thus, making new materials and devices in an inexpensive and efficient manner is one of the largest challenges. In addition to the energy problem, we are facing a global water quality issue. As the population increases and ages, getting access to abundant clean water will continue to be a major issue.

Q: What is the biggest myth about your research? What doesn’t the public know or understand about this kind of research?
I think that there are two: one is that biology can solve all of our problems. Of course, biology has optimized over millions of years, but it has used materials that were available to it. We do have access to better engineering materials; the key is using similar designs to construct new materials with enhanced performance. The other is the use of the word “bio-inspiration” versus “bio-mimetics”. I think those not in this field mix these two quite easily. Bio-inspired research does not mean you are mimicking something, it means research is guided by ideas or strategies utilized by biological systems. It's a huge difference. I think what much of the public does not know (especially our youth) is that inspiration is all around them! I feel we are spending too much time on our facebook pages to stop and look around what we have been given on this planet.

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
Stop looking at your Facebook pages all day and prepare yourself for a very challenging future. Get involved with the many wonderful faculty members here at UCR by doing internships in labs to gain the necessary experience. Finally, be diverse; the future scientist/engineer will have to be multidisciplined.

David Kisailus "The exciting part of this research from an engineering perspective is that we can use design cues from systems optimized over millions of years to produce a myriad of multifunctional materials with applications for energy conversion and storage, water purification, automotive, aerospace, sports and medical industries."

—David Kisailus