Qun Wang: developing functional materials for a cleaner, healthier world

Qun WangQun Wang, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in CCEE and CBE, is using his multidisciplinary background in environmental, chemical, and petroleum engineering to create novel functional materials—materials specifically designed to possess certain properties or functions—to improve human and public health.

“Some of the most challenging problems in the fields of medicine and healthcare can be attributed to the lack of better disease diagnosis and effective therapeutics. The latest developments in materials science, drug delivery, nanotechnology, and stem cells provide new tools for innovative solutions to these challenges,” says Wang.

He believes functional materials development shows great promise in addressing the tissue and organ losses from aging, disease, or accidents. In addition, increases in life expectancy are creating an aging population with increased age-related health problems.

“In light of the growing shortage of donor organs, regenerative medicine is poised to have a tremendous impact on extending both the quality and duration of patients’ lives. In this regard, stem cells are capable of self-renewal and may differentiate into multiple cell lines, making them advantageous for regenerative medicine applications. Functionalized materials such as nanoparticles, hydrogels, and tissue scaffolds, which support the growth of stem cells, will play a critical role in medical applications,” says Wang.

His doctoral work demonstrates the possibilities of these functional materials in the field of medical treatment. Wang developed a colloidal gel for osteogenesis, or bone tissue growth, which can be injected into a skeletal defect to promote bone tissue growth, providing an alternative to the invasive surgery often required in such situations.

“From a clinical perspective, the use of injectable scaffolds like this gel is very attractive since it reduces the risk of infection, scar formation, patient discomfort, and the cost of treatment,” says Wang. This bone filler can also be used as a drug delivery system for accelerating bone healing or tissue repair.

At Iowa State, Wang plans to pursue developing a microbial fuel cell, which uses microorganisms to catalyze the production of electricity from wastewater while simultaneously treating it.

“Microbial fuel cells have great potential to enhance the energy sustainability of waste water treatment by using wastewater as an energy producer instead of an energy consumer. The energy value in domestic water is high from industrial wastewater, especially from agriculture and food processing wastewater, because of its higher biomass density. Wastewater treatment plants in an agricultural state like Iowa can take full advantage of microbial fuel cell technology,” says Wang.

He says his research interests have been inspired by his father, also an environmental engineer, who encouraged him to pursue his career “to make a living-friendly world.”

Before he joined Iowa State, Wang worked as the Jorge Heller Postdoctoral Fellow in Professor Robert Langer’s Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. He received his first PhD in environmental science and engineering from Wuhan University (China) in 2007, and a second PhD in chemical and petroleum engineering from the University of Kansas in 2010. Additionally, he holds a MS in environmental science and engineering from Wuhan University and a BS in environmental engineering from Zhejiang University of Technology (China) in 2000.