Texas Tech University

National Academy Member Chau-Chyun Chen Named Horn Distinguished Professor

Allen Ramsey

April 28, 2022

The award is the highest honor given to Texas Tech faculty.

From the moment he came to Texas Tech University in 2013, Chau-Chyun Chen knew he wanted to make a positive impact on humanity.

Chen received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the National Taiwan University before earning his master's and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

He spent three decades working at Aspen Technology Inc. (AspenTech), an MIT spinoff company he co-founded, where he was responsible for science and technology innovations in the company's process modeling business area. 

However, the work with AspenTech was limiting in scope so Chen decided to move into academia, where he could focus his research on finding solutions for some of the problems facing humanity. 

Chen's work on molecular thermodynamics and process modeling and simulation is designed to make chemical plants smaller and more energy-efficient. Focusing on sustainable energy, his current research interests also include carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and CO2 fixation systems; high salinity brine treatment and desalination processes; adsorptive, membrane and electrochemical separations from biomass-derived chemicals; and energetic materials.  

Chen is the Jack Maddox Distinguished Engineering Chair in Sustainable Energy and a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering. He also is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, considered one of the highest professional honors for engineers. 

His outstanding work as a researcher, educator and industry leader has now led to another title. Chen recently was named a Horn Distinguished Professor, the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member.  

What does it mean for you to be named a Horn Distinguished Professor?

The Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professorship is a “special honor that rewards extraordinary academic achievements,” especially those achieved while at Texas Tech. To me, it primarily reflects the importance of community and teamwork in creating new knowledge. I am deeply grateful to my family, my students, my faculty colleagues and collaborators, my national laboratory and industry partners, and the Texas Tech administration who have supported me in my pursuit of bringing about innovative solutions to challenging problems of interest to me and of importance to society. Moreover, this honor is a tribute to the JF Maddox Foundation, whose generous research funding support through the Jack Maddox Distinguished Chair in Engineering at the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering made it possible for me to transition from industry to academia and to focus on the academic endeavor. Personally, I am humbled by this great honor.

What originally brought you to Texas Tech?

I am very fortunate to have had a productive and rewarding career as a co-founder of an MIT spinoff company that went public. After working in industry for over 30 years, I developed an urge to challenge myself with the numerous unsolved problems of interest to me and humanity at large, rather than limit myself to problems primarily of interest to shareholders. I appreciate the freedom to pursue these various topics, to collaborate and learn from students and faculty with different perspectives and expertise, and to publish and share the new knowledge and discovery with future generations. With Dean Al Sacco's calls and the generous support of the JF Maddox Foundation, I accepted the challenge to start my second career at Texas Tech.

What factors led you to become interested in your area, particularly sustainable energy?

In a 2003 National Research Council report titled “Beyond the Molecular Frontier – Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering,” process simulation was recognized as a “revolution” and “one of the great success stories in the use of computing in the chemical industry.” As it explains, “capturing the fundamental chemical engineering principles, process simulation is widely accepted to make routine plant trials and most experimental scale-up obsolete in the commodity chemicals industries.” In my prior life in industry, I was deeply involved in the development of process simulation models and the underlying engineering fundamentals in thermodynamics, reaction kinetics and heat and mass transport for hundreds of industrial-scale chemical processes and plants, including CO2 capture plants for coal-fired power stations. I consider deciphering the chemical engineering fundamentals underlying complex chemical systems as my strength and I wish to contribute my strength to solving the current grand challenges including climate change, renewable energy, clean water, energy storage and recycling plastic wastes.

What have been your most rewarding experiences at Texas Tech?

I joined Texas Tech to tackle a few important and familiar problems that I was unable to pursue in industry. However, the most rewarding experiences at Texas Tech turned out to be in the areas I did not foresee. In one case, while I suggested the initial concept and supported the students with brainstorming sessions, ultimately it was my students' curious minds, creative thinking and many sleepless nights that eventually led to the establishment of a new electrolyte thermodynamic model that overcomes the theoretical deficiencies in the most successful electrolyte thermodynamic model I developed as a graduate student. We expect this new model to provide a comprehensive theoretical framework to accurately describe the thermodynamic properties of electrolyte solutions with high charge density ions such as lithium and rare-earth element ions. In another case, my students and I ventured into adsorption thermodynamics, an area I had never touched during my industrial career. With rigorous analysis and creative thinking, we were able to derive the first and only thermodynamically consistent model for multicomponent adsorption that properly addresses both surface loading and surface composition dependences. Both of these advances were complete surprises, and they should represent new milestones in their respective areas of engineering science.

Who has been the greatest influence on your research and teaching?

Professor Lawrence B. Evans of MIT taught me to focus on impact. After I graduated from MIT, Professor Evans recruited me to join AspenTech, an MIT spinoff company. Professor Evans told me that, by joining AspenTech, I would get to work on solving challenging problems for the entire industry rather than only problems for a single company. At AspenTech I learned to focus on problems of significance and impact to the entire industry, and I was given opportunities to work with hundreds of companies worldwide in oil and gas, petrochemicals, chemicals, polymers, pharmaceuticals and CO2 capture.

Professor John M. Prausnitz of the University of California, Berkeley, taught me to be a student for life. Despite not being a member of Professor Prausnitz's academic tree, he invited me to speak at UC Berkeley to learn about my graduate research. Professor Prausnitz later shared his research advances and learned about industry needs by participating in multiple AspenTech conferences attended by thousands of industry practitioners from around the world. Moreover, it was Professor Prausnitz who convinced me it is possible to have a fruitful second career in academia after having spent my first career in the industrial world. I was particularly riveted by his stories about the legendary academic career of Professor Joel H. Hildebrand at UC Berkeley.

Both Professors Evans and Prausnitz impressed me most by being so kind and supportive to students. Both of them are among the most celebrated academicians in engineering and their genuine kindness and unconditional support to me throughout my career, and to many other foreign students like me, are truly inspirational and totally unexpected. They are my role models.

What have been some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?

  • Find and recognize your strength, build success based on your strength, and contribute with your strength.

  • People don't know what they don't know. Therefore, surround yourself with good collaborators and teachers who can advise you in their areas of expertise. Teams of good collaborators are always stronger than individual contributors. 

  • Do not be afraid of tackling new challenges and new problems. New challenges allow you to grow as you apply your expertise and strength to new problems. At the same time, know your capacity and bandwidth and deliver what you promise.

  • Focus on the moment and know your role to contribute. Customers' success defines success in industry and students' success defines success in academia.

What are the most important lessons you like to pass on to students?

  • Be open-minded, honest and direct.

  • Invest in yourself because you are your own best investment.

  • We all make mistakes. What is important is to recognize mistakes, correct mistakes and learn from mistakes.

  • Your actions at the most challenging times define your true character.