What do Cement, Rocket Fuel and Cancer Therapies have in Common? Rajesh Dave

NJIT Particle Engineer Wins Awards and Patents for Rethinking Tiny Building Blocks of Modern Production

Rajesh Davé, a problem-driven inventor whose relish for re-engineering tiny particles has led to advances in such diverse areas as weapons safety and drug delivery systems, while earning him a stream of patents, has been tapped by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) for one of its major career awards.

Davé, a distinguished professor of chemical, biological and pharmaceutical engineering, has won the organization’s 2015 Lectureship Award in Fluidization, a process for agitating solids such as powders and particles in order to make them behave like liquids. By fluidizing particles, engineers are able to adapt their structure and behavior to improve products ranging from cement, to cookies, to fuel, to cancer medications, to sunscreen, while making it faster and more efficient to manufacture them.

“What I find most interesting about these materials is that they defy easy categorization as solids, liquids or gases. For example, individual particles are solid, but collectively they don’t behave as solids,” Davé notes. “Fluidizing fine particles is a challenge, in part because the established equations governing these states of matter don’t apply.”

Drawing on physics, chemistry and engineering, his research into the behavior of particles is fundamental and his methods for adapting them, widely applicable. For example, by shaking granular or particulate materials along with nanomaterials, which form a thin coating around them, he is able to optimize their flow, among other processing improvements.

Most recently, Davé has been re-engineering drug particles to enhance the effectiveness of medications in a variety of ways: by increasing the absorption rates of drugs with poor water solubility, delaying the release of medications that degrade in the acidic environment of the stomach and masking the bitter tastes of drugs to make them more palatable for children as well as for adult patients who have difficulty swallowing.

This month, he received his ninth patent for coming up with a manufacturing process for coating fine particles less than the diameter of a human hair in width that does not require water, organic solvents or heat.  The technology, developed along with former NJIT students who are also named on the patent, has been licensed by a global health care company that develops both drugs and their delivery systems. The coating in this instance is a fine layer of wax that will be used to mask bitter tastes.

“Raj has an applications-focused approach that has resulted in transdisciplinary collaborations that are changing the future of manufacturing,” said Atam Dhawan, NJIT’s vice provost for research. “In the area of pharmaceutical engineering, his success in making medications the body can absorb and process efficiently has advanced one of the primary goals of the National Institutes of Health: to design therapies that are more precise.”

The AIChE award comes on the heels of another career milestone for Davé, who recently received notice that he will be honored by the New Jersey Hall of Fame with its “Innovators” award.

What is striking about his career is that it did not begin in chemical engineering, but rather in mechanical engineering. Indeed, his first eureka moment as an inventor, the development of a mathematical approach to filter the “noise” out of data sets, has been hailed by researchers in another field entirely – computer science – as a useful tool for winnowing out outlier data points that distract from central patterns. His “robust clustering” method is now routinely used in the analysis of demographic and financial trends, among other areas.

Soon after, Davé shifted his focus from clustering to particle technology, intrigued by the many unanswered questions about materials that behave like gases, liquids or solids depending on surrounding conditions. Over the years, he has collaborated with faculty from NJIT and Rutgers University on projects such as improving the flow of grain and gravel through industrial chutes, the mixing of nanoparticles, and processes for coating fine particles to create, for example, faster-burning rocket fuels and explosive materials for weapons such as grenades that are less impact-sensitive and therefore less likely to explode accidentally.

The pharmaceutical industry took note.

Davé is currently the site-leader and one of the founders for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Engineering Research Center on Structured Organic Particulate Systems, which focuses on manufacturing processes for the pharmaceutical industry. Collaborators include NJIT, Rutgers, Purdue University and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. 

He describes himself as naturally interdisciplinary because he tackles interesting problems wherever he finds them. Sometimes new topics arise out of interesting conversations with colleagues at NJIT and on other campuses in entirely different fields.

“I don’t think outside of the box, I stand outside of it,” he says, adding that he encourages his students, including 26 Ph.D. advisees so far, to continually refresh their careers by keeping their intellectual curiosity alive and by working purposefully – and hard.

It’s a message he promotes widely.

Each summer, Davé and Ecevit Bilgili, an associate professor in his department, invite ambitious high school science teachers from across the region to spend six weeks at NJIT doing pharmaceutical research with professors and graduate students in labs across campus, helping to advance the effectiveness of medications while also gathering material and lesson plans that will energize their classes. They have secured funding to allow a dozen teachers each year to participate each year in the NSF’s Research Experiences for Teachers program.

“This program gives teachers direct experience with industry-relevant science and engineering research as well,” he notes. “It not only revitalizes them professionally but makes them more effective in conveying the relevance and the societal impact of pursuing STEM fields and channeling their students into them.”

What’s next? For the moment, Davé and his colleagues will work on methods for applying their innovations more broadly in the pharmaceutical and food industries, among others.

“From a technical standpoint,” he says, “we will develop simulations and modeling that allow us to scale up the processes we have invented.”

Tracey Regan