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Catalysis is a central theme of Huang laboratory research. One goal is to engineer enzyme and electrochemical catalysis for water/wastewater treatment and soil remediation. The second goal is to elucidate the role of catalysis in NOM cycling, and thus apply it in solid waste recycling, biofuel production, and agro-ecosystem management. The third goal involves environmental nanotechnology, including the environmental behaviors of carbon nanomaterials, synthesis and manipulation of iron nanoparticles, and enzyme-mimicking metal oxide nanoparticles for pollution control and clean production.

Novel electrochemical processes for wastewater treatment and recycling

Electrochemical processes have shown increasing promise in future wastewater treatment, for being almost universally applicable, efficient, and easy to manipulate, operate and automate. Huang laboratory is in pursuit of some especially innovative ideas to further promote the efficiency and safety of electrochemical water treatment processes, including reactive electrochemical membrane (REM) processes enabled by Magnali phase titanium suboxides ceramic materials, design and fabrication of novel anodic materials that minimize the formation of disinfection byproducts during anodic oxidation, and electrochemical advanced oxidation processes. Huang laboratory is interested in applying electrochemical processes to degrade poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) as well as recycle and reuse wastewater for agricultural uses.

Enzyme-based technology for pollution control and remediation

Certain extracellular enzymes present in the environment, such as peroxidases and phenol oxidases, are critically involved in natural organic matter (NOM) humification processes. They mediate the degradation of lignin, the most persistent natural organic material, and catalyze oxidative coupling reactions that polymerize small molecular humic precursors into macromolecular NOM moieties, reactions collectively referred to as enzyme-catalyzed oxidative humification reactions (ECOHRs). Such enzymatic processes can also incorporate organic pollutants into humification process, causing their degradation and detoxification. Huang laboratory is interested in applying such enzymatic processes in pollution control and remediation. They attempted to explore the reaction pathways and governing factors to provide a basis for process development and optimization, and they are also interested in understanding the reactivity in relation to enzyme protein structure and enzyme-substrate binding for design and production of enzyme variants for more effective decontamination reactions.

Catalysis in ecosystem management and waste reuse

Humification is critically involved in natural organic matter cycling. A wide range of fungi, plants and bacteria can produce enzymes that are involved in humification. Further understanding of the enzymatic humification processes, including the factors controlling enzyme production and regulation and the interactions between enzymes and natural organic matters are of important scientific and application values. It will advance knowledge in soil organic chemistry and inform novel technology development involving organic matter manipulation. Huang laboratory attempts at means by regulating humification enzyme activities to reduce thatch accumulation for turf management or to enhance soil organic matter formation for carbon sequestration. Huang laboratory is also interested in using agricultural wastes and animal manure as feedstocks in solid state fermentation for enzyme production and simultaneous pollution abatement.

Environmental behaviors and risks of bioactive micropollutants

Bioactive micropollutants of emerging concern, such as hormones, pharmaceuticals, and perfluorochemicals are widely present in the environment, usually at low concentrations, but can still cause profound negative impacts to ecological and human health. Based on strong laboratory capability in trace chemical analysis and structural identification, Huang laboratory has conducted studies to examine the occurrence, transformation and fate of emerging contaminants in soil and water systems, to provide fundamental information for science-informed risk analysis and regulation.

Application of advanced oxidation for food safety

Effective cleaning and disinfection is of paramount importance for fresh produce industry to prevent or limit foodborne illness. Chlorine-based sanitization is the most commonly used due to its relatively low cost and high efficacy in inactivating pathogens. Concerns have however been on the rise about the formation of disinfection by-products (DBPs) in relation to the use of chlorine-based sanitizers. Therefore, alternative sanitizers that are effective, economically feasible, but less prone to DBP formation is in great need. We are conducting studies to explore the possible use of activated persulfate, a relatively new advanced oxidation process (AOP) that has been studied actively in recent environmental studies, in applications as an alternative sanitizer for fresh produce.

Environmental implication and application of nanotechnology

The rapidly growing nanotechnology presents a double-edged sword to the environment. On one hand, the unusual properties and reactivity of nanomaterials offer unprecedented opportunities to address tough contamination problems. On the other hand, certain nanomaterials may impose unexpected environmental risks. Huang laboratory has studied both the environmental application and implication of nanotechnology, and have examined zero-valent iron nanoparticles (ZVIN), manganese oxide nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes.

Application of advanced Mass Spectrometry in environmental studies

Transformation of contaminants in environmental and engineered systems is of a central interest to Huang laboratory. The rapid advancement in spectroscopy such as high resolution mass spectrometry provides unprecedented opportunities for chemical analysis and system characterization. Huang laboratory is keen on taking this opportunity in their on-going research to examine complicated reaction pathways in complex reaction matrices.

Elucidation of reaction mechanisms using molecular modeling and simulation

Understanding the mechanisms governing contaminant transformation is important in predicting the environmental behaviors and risks of pollutants and optimizing reactions to degrade them. Huang laboratory employs molecular modeling and simulation tools to elucidate the mechanisms at molecular level by characterizing the bonding and electronic structures, reaction energetics, and transition states.