Breaking rules to solve complex problems
“I believe that chemical engineers should be able to do everything,” says Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor and David Croll Faculty Fellow in the Department of Systems Engineering and the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) at Cornell. “Society faces many issues in the areas of food, water, and energy production; chemical engineers can help come up with sustainable solutions to important challenges in these areas.”
Though You’s undergraduate and doctoral degrees are in chemical engineering, his research approach and goals are broader than any one discipline. You’s focus is on the development of novel computational models, optimization algorithms, and systems analysis and design methods to improve process manufacturing, energy systems, and sustainability. His work straddles the line between operations research and chemical engineering.
“Michael Zak (’75 OR) endowed the faculty chair I am in because he believes strongly that it is essential to link the field of operations research with chemical engineering,” says You. You received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Tsinghua University. He earned his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. He then worked in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at the Argonne National Laboratory for two years and taught at Northwestern University for five years before coming to Cornell in 2016.
“I am excited to be at Cornell. My departmental colleagues are gifted and open to collaborations. Also, I think there will be many opportunities to work with students and professors across the College of Engineering and throughout Cornell.”
You’s long-term goal is to create computational and modeling tools that decision-makers in government and industry will be able to use to make better decisions with the idea of sustainability as a guiding factor. “We have known for a long time that people need to make better decisions about where and how we get our food, water, and energy, yet our decisions are not as good as we expected. I want to develop tools that will be analogous to the tools weather forecasters use today.” You believes that if he can use advanced mathematical, computing, and optimization techniques to create systems engineering tools, then he can provide decision-makers with the tools they will need to make better decisions.
You believes that now is the perfect time to create these tools. “With more and more data available to researchers it is time to take that data and push the limits of sustainability analytics,” says You. Processes used to manufacture biofuels, solar cells, shale gas, and many other products could be made more efficient and more sustainable. With his knowledge of chemistry and chemical processes and his background in operations research, You is ideally situated to take advantage of the Big Data now available to help the world better manage its resources while at the same time helping companies save money through more efficient operations.
The quality and widespread applicability of You’s research have resulted in papers by You being ranked the top most cited articles in the AIChE Journal in 2012, 2013, and 2015. (AIChE is the American Institute of Chemical Engineers). In 2017, You was appointed as a consulting editor of the AIChE Journal. He was also recently invited to join the editorial board of ACS Sustainable Chemistry, a high-impact journal of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
The Cornell Systems Engineering website says: “Systems Engineering is the process by which we understand a complex need and then develop, test, and deploy elegant and harmonious solutions to meet that need.” Fengqi You’s work fits this description perfectly.
“Engineering is a way of thinking systematically,” says You. “I want our students to include sustainability in the way they think about problems. We seek to provide a balance between theory, computation, and real world applications through our synergistic research that includes both fundamentals and applications.”