Postgraduate Research Projects Offered - Chemical and Process Engineering - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Postgraduate Research Projects Offered for 2015

Projects are listed under the names of staff members who will supervise the research. The supervisors will be happy to provide further information regarding the projects in which you are interested.

Professor Conan Fee

Biomolecular Engineering Research Group

A range of projects are available in:

  • 3D-Printed Porous Media for Chromatographic Separations
  • Protein PEGylation for Improved Therapeutic Protein Half-Lives
  • Chromatographic and Membrane Purifications of Bovine Dairy and Equine Serum Proteins
  • Biomolecular Interactions of Influenza Virus Coat Proteins, Self-Assembled Peptides and Other Medically-Relevant Proteins by Surface Plasmon Resonance and Quartz Crystal Microbalance

The Biomolecular Engineering Research Group is an active group comprising between 15 and 25 researchers/students at any one time. I lead this group and am also a Principal Investigator in the Biomolecular Interaction Centre at the University of Canterbury ( and an Associate Investigator in the Riddett Institute Centre of Research Excellence hosted at Massey University, and am on the Board of the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery hosted at the University of Auckland. My work in the Biomolecular Engineering Research Group is mainly focused in the four areas listed above, described in more detail below. Please check out the papers embedded in the descriptions to see representative work. Because much of what we do has potential commercial applications, I cannot be highly specific about project ideas but there is scope in all areas for world-leading research and I am happy to discuss project ideas with prospective students.

I am seeking innovative and well-prepared students with a background in chemical engineering or related fields to take on projects in all areas below.

1. 3D-Printed Porous Media for Chromatography

Our group was the first in the world to propose and demonstrate the concept of printing highly-ordered porous structures with finely controlled geometries for use in chromatography, catalysis, filtration and other areas where fluid-solid contact is important. Our first publication in the area (Fee C.J., Nawada S. and Dimartino S. (2014) “3D Printed Porous Media Columns with Fine Control of Column Packing Geometry”, J. Chromatography A Vol.1333, 18-24) describes the concept of producing these, including printing the entire column, internal flow distributors and fluid fittings, etc, in one integrated piece. We now have a large number of active researchers on our team from chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, mathematics, computer science and chemistry, investigating a wide range of topics.

I am seeking people to work in this highly relevant and exciting area. In particular, there are projects in the areas of

  • New packing geometries from an experimental design-print-build-test point of view, using our existing 3D printers and AKTA chromatography systems, amongst other instruments such as microCT scanning to test internal geometry (would suit a chemical engineering or similar background)
  • Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) using the Lattice-Boltzmann method and our BlueGene supercomputer to extend our own current implementation of the Palabos Software to simulate flow through various novel geometries, and to model performance in chromatographic processes including convection, diffusion and adsorption (would suit any relevant engineering, physics or mathematics backgrounds)
  • Materials development, including both highly porous organic polymers and hydrogels to optimize their internal pore characteristics and strength when printed using various approaches (would suit chemical, materials or polymer engineering or chemistry backgrounds)
  • New printer developments for printing a variety of materials (organic, inorganic, ceramic, hydrogels, polymeric) suitable for use in porous beds (would suit mechanical or mechatronics engineering backgrounds)
  • Counter-current extraction techniques using novel 3D-printed packing geometries (would suit a chemical engineering or similar background)
  • Bioreactor development using immobilized cells, enzymes of other biocatalysts in printed porous beds (would suit a chemical engineering or similar background)
  • Geometric analysis and optimization of flow, adsorption and transport through novel 3D-printed geometries (would suit a mathematics background)
  • Surface modification to functionalize 3D-printed hydrogels and organic polymers for adsorption and/or catalysis (would suit organic chemistry or chemical engineering backgrounds)

2. Protein PEGylation for Improved Therapeutic Protein Half-Lives

The circulation half-lives of therapeutic proteins such as interferon can be improved dramatically by covalent attachment of the inert, amphiphilic polymer poly(ethylene glycol) or PEG. So-called “protein PEGylation” is a very important process in the biopharmaceuticals industry. However, the process is expensive and is often not efficient either in terms of the reaction engineering involved (low conversions and multiple products) or the downstream purification technologies (low efficiency and resolution between species). In earlier work (Fee C.J. & Van Alstine (2004) “Prediction of size and size exclusion chromatography behaviour of PEGylated proteins”, Bioconjugate Chemistry, Vol.15 (6), pp1304-1313) we determined a correlation between the amount of PEG added to a protein and its dramatic increase in size. Later, we reviewed the issues with reaction and separation (Fee C.J. & Van Alstine J.M. (2006) “Protein PEGylation: Reaction and Separation Issues” Chemical Engineering Science: Special Issue on Biomolecular Engineering, Vol.61, pp924-939). Both papers have been highly cited and it is clear there is plenty of scope for new ways to produce, purify and analyze PEGylation proteins. Other representative work in this area is described in other publications (Wang H., He L., Gabius H.-J., Fee C.J. & Middelberg A.P.J. (2008) “Single-site Cys-substituting mutation of human lectin galectin-2: modulating solubility in recombinant production, reducing long-term aggregation and enabling site-specific monoPEGylationBiomacromolecules, Vol.9(11), pp3223-3230; Fee C.J. (2007) “Size Comparison between Proteins PEGylated with Branched and Linear Poly(Ethylene Glycol) Molecules” Biotechnology & Bioengineering, Vol.98(4), pp725-731; Fee C.J. (2003) “Size Exclusion Reaction Chromatography (SERC): A new technique for protein PEGylation”, Biotechnology & Bioengineering, Vol.82 (2), pp200-206).

I am seeking good students with a biochemical engineering background to work on projects such as:

  • PEGylation biochemical reaction kinetics
  • PEGylated protein purification by chromatography and other novel methods
  • Interactions between PEGylated proteins and their receptors

3. Chromatographic and Membrane Purifications of Bovine Dairy and Equine Serum Proteins

We have worked on protein purification processes for many years, mainly in dairy protein purifications but have recently developed an interest in equine (horse) serum protein purifications. For example, novel adsorptive membranes for protein recovery (Saufi S.M. and Fee C.J. (2011) “Mixed Mode Anion and Cation Exchange Chromatography using a Customizable Mixed Matrix Membrane for Whey Proteins” Journal of Chromatography A Vol.1218, 9003-9; Saufi S.M. & Fee C.J. (2011) “Recovery of Lactoferrin from Whey using Cross-Flow Cation Exchange Mixed Matrix Membrane Chromatography”, Separation & Purification Technology Vol.77(1), pp68-75) and the use of novel ligands and media (Billikanti J., Fee C.J., Naik A. and Carbonell R.G. (2014) “Application of Peptide Chromatography for the Isolation of Antibodies from Bovine Skim Milk, Acid Whey and Colostrum”, Food & Bioproducts Processing, Vol.92(2), 199-207; Billakanti J.M. & Fee C.J. (2009) “Extraction of whey proteins from raw bovine milk using a cryogel cation exchanger”, Biotechnology & Bioengineering, Vol.103(6), pp1155-1163), or the development of a robotic system for on-farm extraction of milk proteins from individual cows (Fee C.J. & Chand A. (2005) “Design considerations for the batch capture of proteins from raw whole milk by ion exchange chromatography”, Chemical & Engineering Technology Special Issue on Preparative and Industrial Chromatography, Vol.28 (11), pp1360-1366).

Projects in which we will develop new methods for purification of high-value dairy or serum proteins would suit those with a chemical or biochemical engineering background.

4. Biomolecular Interactions

Through the Biomolecular Interactions Centre ( we are extremely well equipped to study interactions between biomolecules, using a wide variety of techniques such as analytical ultracentrifuge, gel permeation, isothermal calorimetry, fluorescence, surface plasmon resonance and quartz crystal microbalance. My students have, in recent years, studied interactions between antiviral drugs and the influenza viral coat protein (Balaji Somasundaram, Conan J. Fee, Rayleen Fredericks, Andrew J.A. Watson and Antony J. Fairbanks (2015) “Development of a surface plasmon resonance assay to measure the binding affinity of wild-type influenza neuraminidase and its H274Y mutant to the antiviral drug zanamivir”, Journal of Molecular Recognition, Vol.28(2), 87-95), interactions between insulin and the insulin receptor (Subramanian K., Fee C.J., Fredericks R., Stubbs R.S. and Hayes M.T. (2013) “Insulin receptor-insulin interaction kinetics using multiplex surface plasmon resonance” J. Molecular Recognition Vol.26(12), 643-652), dairy whey protein analyses (Billakanti J.M. & Fee C.J. (2009) “Simultaneous, quantitative detection of five whey proteins in multiple samples by surface plasmon resonance”, International Dairy Journal, Vol.20(2), pp96-105), protein fouling on stainless steel (Chandrasekaran N.N., Dimartino S. and Fee C.J. (2013) “Study of the adsorption of proteins on stainless steel surfaces using QCM-D”, Chemical Engineering Research & Design Vol.91, 1674-83) and reversible self-assembled peptides (Ponnumallayan P. and Fee C.J. (2014) “Reversible and Rapid pH-Regulated Self-Assembly of a Poly (Ethylene Glycol)-Peptide Bioconjugate”, Langmuir, Vol.30(47), 14250–14256).

I am looking for well-prepared students to work on interactions of proteins with one another, receptors or surfaces in areas related to medicine, sensor development or new smart materials. Projects in these areas would suit those with a biochemical engineering background.

Dr Peter Gostomski


Biofiltration is an air pollution control technology widely used in New Zealand and around the world. It is mainly used for treating high flow rate air streams contaminated with low concentrations of organics (<1000 ppmv). It is especially useful for treating odorous air streams. In this technology, the contaminated air passes through a packed bed reactor filled with biologically active media such as compost or soil. The organic contaminant partitions into the natural biofilm and the organisms present oxidise the organic, producing carbon dioxide and water. While biofilters are rather easy to build, they can be very difficult to operate successfully. This is due to a poor understanding of the engineering aspects of the system such as air and water flow, energy balances and proper control of key parameters.

a) Water Content Effect on Microbial activity – ME/Ph.D.

The water content and water potential can vary dramatically in biofilters. These variations theoretically affect both the intrinsic bioactivity and the mass transfer in these systems. No systematic study has been performed on how changes in water content and potential affect the specific activity of biofilter media. A novel bioreactor configuration that has been designed and built at Canterbury for these types of measurements. It allows very accurate control over the water potential, providing far more detailed information on microbial activity in gas phase bioreactions than has been available in the past. This information is required in conjunction with the air and water flow properties to optimize the proper media and water content for biofilter operation.

b) Impact of metabolic uncouplers on biofiltration

Metabolic uncouplers interfere with ATP production.  The hypotheis is they could raise the elimination capacity for biofilters.  They have been tested in activated sludge systems to lower the sludge yield with mixed success.  However, biofiltration is a much more appropriate technology to implement these chemicals as they are not released with the water.  This project will test this hypothesis with different uncouplers and different biofilter systems.

Microbial Cellulose Production – ME/Ph.D.

Cellulose is normally derived from trees and is the main constituent of paper. However certain strains of bacteria excrete cellulose as an extracellular polysaccharide. This cellulose is relatively pure and does not contain the lignin and hemicellulose associated with wood. Its other unique property is that the chain length is much longer and thereby produces much stronger paper. Its uses include high quality speaker cones and headphones and it has novel features as a wound dressing. At present, microbial cellulose is commercially made in low-tech surface cultures but it also has been made with rotating biological contactors (RBC). This project will continue to evaluate new reactor configurations for producing microbial cellulose. These reactors will be designed to optimise different aspects of production or the end product.  

Microbial Fuel Cells – ME/Ph.D. (in conjunction with Aaron Marshall)

Microbial fuel cells have been coupled with waste water treatment for energy production.  This project will investigate their potential in contaminated air applications.

Dr Daniel Holland

Fundamentals of gas-solid flow

Gas-solid flows are found in a variety of industries ranging from the production of milk powder and fertilisers to electrical power generation.  However despite their widespread use, processes relying on gas-solid flows are notoriously difficult to design and operate efficiently.  Numerical simulation techniques can potentially aid the design of new processes. However, the numerical simulation of gas-solid flow is challenging because of the vast range of time and length scales that govern the overall flow.  For example, microscopic collisions between particles govern the apparent “viscosity” of the particulate phase and thus the motion of every individual particle should be modelled in order to accurately describe the flow. However, such a method is impractical when describing an industrial scale system.  Recently magnetic resonance imaging has been shown to be effective for measuring the motion of particles in simple gas-solid flows.  This project will use these measurements to study how the motion of individual particles relates to the apparent viscosity of the granular flow.  On the basis of these measurements, we will develop a rheological model that is suitable for describing macroscopic, industrial flows.

High resolution electrical tomography

Electrical tomography is a non-invasive imaging technique that can be used to study the distribution of material in multiphase flows.  It has been widely used to study gas-solid, gas-liquid, liquid-liquid, and liquid-solid flows.  To date, measurements have been restricted to relatively low spatial resolutions owing to the diffuse nature of the electrical field variation.  This project seeks to develop complex electrical excitation patterns that will increase the spatial resolution that is achievable with electrical tomography.  Such an approach will need to exploit recent developments in signal processing, including compressed sensing to enable the measurements to be obtained in experimentally relevant time scales.

Formulation of fertilisers

The development of fertilisers has enabled dramatic increases in the productivity of agriculture. However, the application of excess amounts of fertiliser leads to eutrophication and degradation of our waterways.  Considerable effort goes in to ensuring that fertilisers are formulated in such a way that the nutrients are released at the right time and place.  For example, granulated fertilisers are commonly used to facilitate easy handling and distribution, whilst for certain crops fertilisers may be coated in polymers or sulphur compounds to ensure that the release of the active species occurs gradually.  This project will seek to develop imaging and numerical modelling techniques to explore the formulation of fertilisers and how this affects the rate of release of the active chemicals.


Dr Aaron Marshall

Understanding the Electrocatalytic behaviour of conductive metal oxides: The role of potential induced structural changes

RuO2 and IrO2 are important electrode materials as they exhibit high electrocatalytic behaviour for many industrial processes. These conductive metal oxide electrodes are unique and exhibit quite different behaviour compared to the convectional understanding derived from metallic electrodes. In addition to their excellent electronic conduction, these oxides can also conduct protons. This is accompanied by potential dependent proton exchange between the oxide and the electrolyte in conjunction with oxidation or reduction of the metal within the oxide. This phenomenon causes the metal-oxygen bond length to vary with potential, thus directly altering the structure of the electrode-electrolyte interface via a geometric mechanism as well as the normal electronic mechanism. This ability of the oxide to undergo these structural changes (e.g. oxidation state, M-O bond length) has been identified as the critical factor in determining their electrocatalytic activity. Despite this, a lack of direct experimental evidence has hampered a conclusive theory being established. We will use various techniques like electrochemical quartz crystal microbalance, Raman spectroscopy, AFM and in-situ x-ray absorption spectroscopy to study these structural changes as a function of electrode potential at various electrocatalytic oxides. This will provide useful information for improving our knowledge of these electrocatalysts.

Optimisation of catalytic layers for Hydrogen production in PEM water electrolysers

PEM water electrolysers, utilise porous catalytic layers in which the electrochemical reactions occur. These porous layers are a composite of electrocatalytic nanoparticles and solid polymer electrolyte. Optimising the structure of the catalytic layer is a critical step to improving the performance and energy efficiency of the electrolyser. These layers must possess high electrical, ionic and mass transport in order to maximise the electrolyser efficiency. We are particularly interested in assessing how lateral conductivity influences cell performance. Furthermore, layer optimisation may lead to a decrease in the quantity of expensive catalyst required to support the electrode reactions.

Development and optimisation of microchannel reactors using electrochemical processing

Microchannel reactors are used in a variety of processes where high heat and mass transfer rates are required. Recently we have explored the preparation of microchannels in both aluminium and stainless steel substrates by using electrochemical etching. This technique allows full control over the etching rate and the resulting channel morphology. We wish to extend this study to explore the electrochemical and electrophoretic deposition of porous catalytic materials within these channels. The process of forming the channels and deposition of the catalyst will studied using electron microscopy, XRD and gas adsorption. Once prepared, these reactors will be utilised for reactions like the water-gas-shift reaction, selective CO oxidation, or Fischer- Tropsch synthesis.

Hydrogen production by the electrochemical oxidation of glycerol

Glycerol is a by-product of the continuously expanding bio-diesel industry. Recently we have demonstrated that hydrogen can be produced from glycerol using significantly less electrical power than traditional water electrolysis. The purpose built electrochemical reactor uses similar technology to that used in PEM fuel cells with the reaction occurring on a thin layer of catalytic nanoparticles. The overall objective of this project is to develop novel catalytic nanoparticles to increase the reaction kinetics. Of particular importance will be the selectivity and the degree of reaction completion each catalyst can achieve. The catalytic nanoparticles will be characterised using standard electrochemical methods, electron microscopy and various synchrotron based x-ray techniques. Students interested in catalysis, fuel cells, hydrogen energy or materials science should apply.

Electrochemical conversion of CO2 to methanol

Efficient conversion of CO2 into liquid fuels such as methanol has the potential to “revolutionise green energy technologies”. This would solve many of the challenges associated with utilising renewable energy sources by providing carbon-neutral energy storage. CO2 can be converted to methanol by electrochemical reduction, although there are significant challenges which must be overcome before this technology is economically viable. Specifically, despite electrochemical reduction of CO2 having surprisingly low thermodynamic energy requirements, (methanol from CO2 requires ~20 mV less than that for H2 production via water electrolysis), large activation barriers substantially increase the energy demands of the process. These activation barriers are mainly caused by the instability of the adsorbed formyl intermediate and can be overcome by well-designed electrocatalysts. The project will involve preparing this electrodes and testing the performance in a lab scale reactor.

Electrochemical wastewater treatment

Electrochemical wastewater treatment offers a robust and controllable method of treating wastewater which is difficult to treat using traditional biological processes. This project will explore the use of electrodes in which nanoparticles are embedded into an oxide matrix. These electrodes offer enhanced surface area, unique reactive boundary zones as well as heterogeneous electronic properties (semi-conducting particles in metallically conductive matrix). The energy and current efficiency for industrial wastewater treatment as well as the degradation kinetics and mechanism of a model wastewater at these electrodes will be examined.

Associate Professor Ken Morison

Ken Morison welcomes any research proposals that use the skills of chemical and process engineering to solve problems of the food and dairy industries.

Experimental dynamics of swelling and shrinkage in polyelectrolyte gels – ME/PhD

A polyelectrolyte is a polymer (e.g., a protein) that has free ions when in solution like an electrolyte such as NaCl.  When polyelectrolyte gels are immersed in acidic or basic salt solution they swell or shrink.  This occurs in some controlled release drug systems and in cleaning of protein deposits.  Modelling results have shown some interesting dynamics for gels in multi-ion solutions.   We will try to verify these experimentally to aid the modelling work.  Some of the experiments will be carried out in the context of protein cleaning.

Characterisation of Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis Membranes – ME/PhD

Despite much research there is still a lot to be understood about the performance of membranes used for separations.  Simple problems such as fouling and the measurement and characterisation of this can be better understood.  Likewise the interaction between surface energy and protein retention in UF is little understood.

Membrane interactions with solvents and solutes ME/PhD

It has been found that the flux through ultrafiltration membranes can be doubled by treatment with aqueous alcohol mixtures.  The cause and implications of this are not well understood.  In this project we will carry out further experiments with a range of solvents and solutes to gain a greater understanding of interactions with membranes.  This might lead to modified separations, or to better cleaning processes.  The Department has an AKTA crossflow filtration unit that can very effectively used to gain good experimental data with a minimum of effort.

Hydrodynamic Cavitation – ME/PhD

Some people claim that cavitation produced within a venturi can be as effective as ultrasonic cavitation for intensifying processes and reactions.  Under cavitation conditions, some reactions occur that require temperatures in excess of 4000 K.  In this initial study we will examine past research and claims, and seek to reproduce past findings.  Then we will determine and study some possible applications of cavitation, e.g, for bacterial control or for enhancing reactions.

Falling film flow in evaporators - ME

In a typical dairy evaporator, a coherent film of liquid must be maintained at all times as otherwise the rate of fouling will be higher and heat transfer coefficients will be reduced. An apparatus has been developed and experiments carried out. The next part of this project will involve more thorough analysis of the distribution of liquid into the evaporator tubes.  Some new ideas for improving distribution will be tested.

Renewable Transport Energy - ME

A final year design project in 2008 showed that there is plenty of opportunity to develop our knowledge of energy for transport energy in New Zealand.  Each of many energy options will be examined using the same basis so that economic and energy efficiency can be compared.

Dairy process design – ME

The principles of operation of most dairy processes are well known but procedures for the design of them are not published in the open literature. In this project, design procedures will be developed that will enable graduate chemical engineers to design dairy processing equipment. Design objectives and constraints will be clearly identified. In particular this project might consider the interactions in design between a process involving ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and evaporation.

Dielectric spectra of natural materials – ME/PhD

It is thought that properties of some products may be inferred by interpreting the spectrum of dielectric constants over a wide band of frequencies. In this project equipment will be set up to enable the measurement of dielectric properties over a range of frequencies. One aim of the project would be to relate the dielectric properties of natural materials, in the frequency range 100 Hz to 1 MHz, to drying, rehydration, moisture and other properties. Another is to relate dielectric properties to differential scanning calorimetry results for the study of glass transition temperatures. 

Physical Properties of Dairy Products – ME/PhD

The physical property data available for milk is of mixed quality. There are opportunities to attempt to apply better correlations to existing data as well as obtaining new data. For example, there is little data available on the boiling point elevation of dairy products that are commonly evaporated. On the other hand there is much data available for viscosity but the current correlations do not fit all the data well. In this project one or more physical properties will be selected, the relevant literature will be thoroughly examined and if necessary more measurements will be made and correlations developed.

Professor Shusheng Pang

For further information, please contact Dr Shusheng Pang Professor and Director, Wood Technology Centre, Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, University of Canterbury , Christchurch , New Zealand . Phone: 0064 3 364 2538; Fax: 0064 3 364 2063 E-mail:


SSP 1.   Production of clean, hydrogen-rich syngas from gasification of biomass pyrolysis slurry – PhD

This project is part of the newly funded research programme to develop technologies for production of clean, hydrogen-rich syngas from gasification of biomass pyrolysis slurry. Development and construction of experimental apparatus will firstly be conducted on entrained flow gasification technology using biomass pyrolysis slurry, then cleaning technology will be developed to remove tars and sulphur. This project will be in collaboration with another PhD project of this research programme on biomass pyrolysis. A scholarship of $26,000 pa will be available for three years to the successful candidate.

SSP 2.   Pyrolysis of biomass for liquid fuel and for slurry of bio-oil/char, ME/PhD

With the declining of fossil fuel reserves in the world, sustainable resources have been sought world-wide for production of alternative liquid fuels. This project is designed to use biomass to produce the liquid fuels and bio-oil/char slurry by pyrolysis process. A lab-scale pyrolysis reactor which has been designed and constructed in this department will be used in this research. A pilot scale pyrolysis reactor will be designed and constructed in this PhD project. Fundamental studies on the pyrolysis process, oil upgrading and slurry production will be the target of this project. This project will be in collaboration with another PhD project of this research programme on biomass slurry gasification. A scholarship of $26,000 pa will be available for three years to the successful candidate.

SSP 3.  Exergy efficiency and life-cycle analysis sis for Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of bio-diesel from biomass - PhD

The objective of this project is to develop and construct a computer model for biomass to biodiesel via gasification and Fischer-Tropsh (F-T) process. The system of biomass to biodiesel is consisting of biomass production/collection, biomass pre-treatment (sizing, drying), biomass gasification, producer gas cleaning, gas upgrading and compression, F-T synthesis, F-T diesel separation and exhaust gas utilisation. The model will be used for exergy efficiency and life cycle analysis. The project will be based on previous feasibility studies of ‘biomass integrated gasification combined cycle’ for generation of power and heat, conducted in the same Department. It will be linked to the other projects in the same research programme including biomass resources and technology development on biomass gasification, pyrolysis and F-T synthesis. A scholarship of $26,000 pa will be available for three years to the successful candidate.

SSP 4.   Drying of wood biomass - ME

In order to achieve high conversion efficiency and to improve the gas quality in the biomass gasification, the moisture content of the biomass feeding stock is required to be between 12 and 15%. However, the green chips from forest residues can have moisture content as high as 150%, while the fuel from a wood processing plant may have a much lower moisture content. This project is to develop new drying technologies and to optimise drying operations to achieve uniform moisture content.  A ME scholarship will be available for this project at a rate of $22,000 p.a. for up to two years.

SSP 5.   Wood-recycled plastics composite – ME

This project is to optimise operation conditions to produce stable and durable wood-recycled plastic composites used as new building materials. The product properties using both hot press moulding and injection moulding will be measured and compared. This project is aligned with an on-going PhD project on the development of the composite product and processing technology.

SSP 6.   Recovery of heat and emissions from kiln drying of timber – ME

In commercial timber drying, fresh air is drawn in and exhaust air is vented out in order to maintain required humidity inside the drying kiln. This has raised two issues: one is the reduced heat efficiency due to the exhausted hot air and another is emissions which are vented with the exhaust air. Recently, the wood drying group in this department, in collaboration with a kiln manufacturer has initiated a research project on recovery of heat and emissions from kiln drying of timber. An experimental system has been built and is commissioned which will be used in this research project. This project will investigate the optimised operation conditions and recovery efficiency in different drying schedule. Wood quality of dried timber using this new drying system will be evaluated. The results from this project will be directly applied to development of new design of the timber kiln.

SSP 7.   Development of new technologies for drying high quality softwood timber - ME

Timber from plantation forests has significant variability in wood quality which induces high proportion of rejection or downgrade due to drying defects. Among these defects are residual drying stresses, checking and discolouration. This project is to develop new drying technologies which will produce high quality timber with minimised cost and environmental effects. The project includes both fundamental modelling and experimental investigation. Preliminary research results on airless drying have shown numerous advantages and the project will start with, but not be limited to, superheated steam drying.

SSP 8.   Reducing VOC emission in kiln drying of timber – ME

Kiln drying of wood emits hydrocarbon compounds which are released while the wood is dried. It is anticipated that in the foreseeable future, environmental regulations will be proposed which will place limits on the emission level and which the timber industry will have to comply with. This project will investigate the effects of drying schedule on the emissions from drying tests both in a laboratory and a commercial drying kiln. Studies will also be undertaken to see solutions: drying schedule optimisation and treatment of the exhaust air.

SSP 9. Production of Biochemicals from Wood as Substitues to Petroleum-derived Chemicals

This PhD project is to investigate the synthesis of biochemicals directly from wood during fast pyrolysis, as substitutes of present petroleum-derived chemicals. This is a new technology with limited prior published research available so there is an opportunity to break new ground. Scale up of successful research could lead to a wood based New Zealand chemical industry.

Dr. Gabriel Visnovsky

Large Scale Production of Fungi using Liquid Fermentation  -  ME/PhD

One of the most sensitive issues in modern agriculture is the delicate balance between pest control on one hand and the danger of environmental damage by chemical pesticides on the other. A promising solution to solve this problem and avoid the negative consequences on safety and health associated with chemical insecticides is the use of micro-organisms that are only pathogenic to the target insects and are not hazardous to the environment.

Beauveria bassiana and Metharizium anisopliae are fungi that have the potential to be used as biological control agents. Mycelium and spores from these fungi -both responsible for their insecticide properties- are usually produced using solid-substrate fermentation, but the high costs associated with their production using this strategy make the process non-viable from a commercial point of view.

The main emphasis in this project will be done on the development of a liquid fermentation strategy that replaces the solid and expensive making profitable the production process in large-scale.

Screening, Isolation and Production of Secondaries Metabolites from New Zealand Algae
in Photobioreactors  - PhD

Microalgae secondary metabolites (MSM) have been attracted the attention of scientists and biotechnology industry during the last decades because they are a potentially rich source of new drug candidates. Also, many algal species produce valuable products, such as colorants, poly-unsaturated fatty acids and bioactive compounds.

In parallel, photobioreactors (PBR) using algae, plant cells, or photosynthetic bacteria have also received considerable attention from biochemical and chemical engineers during the last years. Industry is presently engaged in developing new products and testing a new generation of algal-derived products. However, the lack of high-cell-density-algal PBRs has been a limitation in exploiting the biotechnological potential of algae. Among the factors controlling growth, bioreactor design and light availability are the most important ones.

The New Zealand alpine zone contains a wealth of micro-algae, largely unknown to science.  It is proposed in this project to screen, isolate and cultivate in a photobioreactor of optimized design selected strains to mass-produce MSM in a profitable way. The research of the main fermentation variables affecting the production process will be investigated and optimized in bench scale (up to 5 l). The results will be validated later at pilot scale (up to 120 L) using a concentric tube airlift photobioreactor.

High Cell Density Culture of Fish Cell Lines in Bioreactors of Optimized Design - PhD

The use of fish cell lines in industry and research could be an important tool to produce essential studies on fish diseases, leading the production of fish’s vaccines later which would help to prevent losses of valuable fish population at fisheries. Fish cell lines could be also used for the evaluation of toxic compounds on live organisms, avoiding the use of live fish for the assessments. Usually, large quantities of cells are required for these studies, but due its high sensitivity to shear-stress forces and the lack of an appropriate bioreactor for its cultivation on large-scale, its wide use has been delayed. The main aim in the engineering design of a bioreactor for this type of process is to maintain the shear generated in the equipment within the range permitted by the biological process, while reducing at the same time mass transfer limitations.

The main focus on this project will be both the selection and development of the appropriate cultivation system for these fragile cells and the identification of fermentation strategies to achieve high cell density culture of fish cell lines in suspended culture.

Dr Matthew Watson

High temperature oxygen separation using pseudo-temperature swing adsorption (TSA)

Energy intensive industries such as glass, cement, and steel use high-temperature furnaces heated by combustion of fossil fuels to produce a high-temperature exhaust stream.  Typically heat is recovered from the exhaust by exchanging it with incoming combustion air to improve the overall efficiency of the operation.  The exhaust stream can also be used in a high-temperature pseudo-TSA process to produce oxygen for fossil fuel combustion, thereby improving overall fuel efficiency.  While the process is similar to a TSA, the chemistry of oxygen exchange is not adsorption, but occurs via a mechanism of oxygen ion transport in the solid state.  A class of materials known as mixed metal oxides has the ability to oxidize (take up oxygen) at lower temperatures and reduce (give up oxygen) at higher temperatures with infinite selectivity. 

The research will focus initially on selecting several candidate materials.  In parallel, a process modelling and cost projection program will be developed to determine process integration strategies for waste heat from various industries.  Once candidate materials have been selected, a lab scale experimental apparatus will be designed and built to experimentally evaluate the feasibility and performance of the high-temperature pseudo-TSA process.

Development of monolithic catalytic and adsorbent substrates

Surprisingly, steam methane reformers and adsorption based gas separations still use spherical beaded systems to contact a process fluid with the catalyst or adsorbent.  Properly designed monolithic substrate structures allow for significantly improved contact between the catalyst or adsorbent and the process fluid, which can lead to process intensification.  In addition, better thermal management can be achieved because monoliths typically have a higher thermal conductivity than a bed of discrete beads. 

The research will initially survey the various support structures that are available and compare these to designed structures produced via additive manufacturing (3-D printing).  Ultimately, promising prototype structures will be built and evaluated experimentally in a lab-scale apparatus. 

Dr Chris Williamson

Fischer-Tropsch Fuel from Biomass (ME/PhD)

This project forms one objective in the biomass to liquids research programme based in the Department. The aim is to develop the most suitable Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) reactor and catalyst system for a New Zealand biomass to liquids plant. Research so far has focused on a micro-channel reactor as it has favourable economics in comparison to conventional F-T reactors at smaller liquid production rates. A student taking on this project can expect to continue the reactor and  catalyst development research with the ultimate outcome being a pilot-scale reactor producing F-T liquids from synthesis gas produced by the Department’s FICFB gasifier .

Applicants should contact Dr Williamson or reply, either by post or email to
Dr C J Williamson, Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch.

Dr Alex Yip

Advanced Natural Gas Upgrading Processes Using a High Performance Membrane-based Reactor- 3 PhD projects

According to the newly released Block Offer 2015, the total acreage for oil and gas exploration included in the tender includes 4,093 km2 onshore and 425,205 km2 offshore release area within New Zealand territory. The government continues to suggest that New Zealand has abundant reserves of natural gas. Therefore it would be advantageous to the country if there is a good method to utilise this valuable national asset to augment New Zealand’s economic profit and growth.
This research programme aims to develop a novel membrane-based reactor to efficiently convert the methane component of New Zealand’s natural gas at low cost to commercially useful, high-value products, such as benzene (and its derivatives) and higher alcohols. These products can be sold as fuel or basic chemicals/raw materials in the manufacture of important products used in our everyday lives such as plastics, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, pesticides, etc. Successful development of our new natural gas conversion process would enable diversification of the New Zealand’s oil and gas market by creating additional income streams, e.g. exports of BTX chemicals, high quality synthetic fuels, etc., in additional to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export.
Our novel integrated membrane reactor (UC-PBCMR) is a single unit with characteristic functions that allow a primary reaction, separation and secondary reaction sequentially occur in the same system. The development of UC-PBCMR will be based on three PhD research projects:

(1) Development of a novel hierarchical zeolitic catalyst for methane aromatization

This project will develop a robust hierarchical microporous/mesoporous structure using zeolite with a specific acidity, which will force aromatic products to exit the catalyst structure before undergoing coke-formation reactions. Unlike conventional zeolite, the new hierarchical zeolite catalyst will maximise the use of acid sites and the accessibility of the internal surface by shortening the effective diffusion length in the catalyst.

(2) Fabrication of a thermally stable catalytic membranefor the production of syngas stream  

This project focuses on developing a new catalytic membrane with high permeability of hydrogen (H2), and with good thermal stability and mechanical strength at high temperatures. Appropriate membrane support materials with a differential thermal expansion coefficient similar to that of the membrane layer will be investigated.
Extraction and utilization of H2 will be optimized by using a high-permeability membrane, optimizing the ratio of the membrane area to the reactor volume, and varying operating conditions, including the residence time, flow direction and flow rates of reactants and sweep gas (or CO2) and so forth. 

(3) Tailor-making bimetallic nanoparticles using flame spray pyrolysis (FSP) for synthesis of higher alcohols (collaboration with other university)

Supported bimetallic Fe-Cu alloy nanoparticles will be produced by using flame spray pyrolysis (FSP) synthesis technique and will be used for hydrogenation of CO2 to higher alcohols. This project will investigate how the Fe-Cu alloy cluster size, defect (energetic) sites and compositions (Fe:Cu ratio) can be used to maximise the activity and stability of catalytic materials. The student will study the role of various supports (ZrO2, CeO2, ZnO, SrO, WO3) and will investigate their mechanistic roles in areas such as metalsupport interaction (e.g. electron withdrawing effects), lattice oxygen mobility and surface acidity/basicity. The new catalysts will be probed by using operando spectroscopy techniques. In particular, the operating states of the solid catalysts will be identified from the dynamics of their oxidation states and coordination number using in situ synchrotron X-ray absorption spectroscopy. The reaction conditions required to achieve higher alcohols at substantial yield (e.g. the effect of co-feeding acetylene as a carbon source) will also be investigated.

We are looking for hard-working and ambitious candidates with proven track record of academic achievement.  Previous experience on academic research related to catalysis or micro-/mesoporous materials during undergraduate training, or equivalent, will be a clear asset. For further details about the PhD projects and postgraduate scholarship opportunities, please contact Dr Alex Yip via email (

  • Department of Chemical
    and Process Engineering

    University of Canterbury
    Private Bag 4800 
    New Zealand
  • Phone: + 64 3 364 2543
    Fax: + 64 3 364 2063
  • Contacts page
  • Follow us
    FacebookYoutubetwitterLinked In