Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Whiting School of Engineering
Research and Exploratory Development, Applied Physics Laboratory
Michael Tsapatsis is a renowned chemical engineer and material scientist who creates molecular sieve membranes and catalysts to improve industrial efficiency and reduce waste, pollution.
Oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants are known for their meandering pipes, billowing smokestacks, and fumes. They don’t make the best neighbors, but they do make many products that a modern lifestyle depends on. Tsapatsis is very familiar with the internal workings of these plants.
Tsapatsis is an expert on materials that have pores of molecular size. These so-called molecular sieves are used as catalysts to speed up desirable chemical transformations, and as adsorbents that selectively trap and remove pollutants. By combining chemical engineering principles with advanced computations and synthetic chemistry, Tsapatsis and his research group are designing and synthesizing the next generation of molecular sieves.
The team created zeolite nanosheets, the equivalent of a filter paper that is extremely thin—10,000 times thinner than a piece of paper—with tiny, precisely sized pores that are 100,000 smaller than a human hair. When stitched together with methods pioneered by Tsapatsis’ group, they form unique membranes that efficiently purify chemicals and can create more efficient refineries and cleaner air.
The Sept. 7 edition of Science features the latest research from the Tsapatsis’ group: a novel thin-film deposition method for making metal-organic-framework membranes.
“MOFs, like zeolites, are molecular sieves,” Tsapatsis says. “They offer tremendous flexibility in rationally tuning their pore size to the specific application. However, up to now, MOF membrane formation relied in tedious and costly methods. This is a long-awaited breakthrough that will provide a simple, reliable, and scalable method and may open a new era in MOF membranes.”
Tsapatsis joined Johns Hopkins after 15 years at the University of Minnesota, where he was a member of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He is taking his place among an interdisciplinary group of scholars who are working to address global challenges and teach the next generation.
At Hopkins, Tsapatsis is a tenured professor in the Whiting School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with a joint appointment in the Applied Physics Laboratory’s Research and Exploratory Development Department.
In addition to moving his lab to Hopkins, Tsapatsis teaches courses for both undergraduate and graduate students. An experienced and inspiring teacher, he is known for leading a broad set of core and elective engineering and physical chemistry courses reflecting his interests in reaction engineering, catalysis, separations, transport phenomena, process and product design with emphasis on energy efficiency and process intensification.
Through collaboration with colleagues at Hopkins, he is exploring new applications for porous materials beyond those in the chemical industry. Working with APL will allow him to bridge the gap between the lab and demonstrating the value of his designs to the potential users through rapid prototyping and incorporation in devices.
Tsapatsis received a diploma in chemical engineering from the University of Patras in Patras, Greece, in 1988. He then traveled to the United States to study at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned both his master’s degree and PhD in chemical engineering in 1991 and 1994, respectively. He was also a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech.
Tsapatsis has published more than 250 papers, given numerous presentations around the world, and in 2015 he was elected member of the National Academy of Engineering for his contributions to the “design and synthesis of zeolite-based materials for selective separation and reaction.”
His wife, Efie Kokkoli, an expert in targeted drug and gene delivery, was also recruited from the University of Minnesota by Hopkins, she is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of NanoBioTechnology.