From Disaster to Discovery

Julia A. Kornfield

Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Register by Sept. 8.

From Disaster to Discovery online Registration

Aviation relies entirely on liquid hydrocarbon fuels, presenting the constant risk of explosive combustion in the event of impact. A sobering example is the role of the initial fuel explosion in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. Indeed, the events of 9/11 inspired a Caltech-JPL quest for a lasting solution to mitigate post-impact fuel explosions. Diverse perspectives and personalities led our team to discover long end-associative polymers that form “megasupramolecules.” Unlike ultralong covalent polymers previously known to control fuel mist, the associative polymers eliminate the problem of degradation during routine handling. Statistical mechanics guided design of the length of the polymers, strength of end-to-end association and concentration that control impact-induced misting. Small scale engineering tests indicate that they burn cleanly in unmodified diesel engines with no adverse effect on power output, fuel efficiency or emissions. In fact, they provide a 12% (p=0.002) reduction in the formation of diesel soot. The drop size in post-impact mist shifts to larger sizes when fuel is treated with these polymers, preventing flame propagation. Going beyond hydrocarbons, a willful graduate student took megasupramolecules to water, opening new opportunities to control aqueous drops relevant from inks to agriculture.

For more information on the Sukant Tripathy Endowed Lecture please email:

Julia A. Kornfield wearing a scarf and smiling at the camera.

About Julia A. Kornfield

Professor Julia A. Kornfield is the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Her group designs and synthesizes new molecules guided by understanding their physics. Polymers developed at Caltech are currently used to customize human vision by noninvasively optimizing a lens after it is implanted into a patient’s eye (FDA approved 2017). Kornfield co-founded Fluid Efficiency, which uses “megasupramolecules" to improve hydrocarbon transport and safety.

Thus, her work spans from fundamental research on the molecular basis of polymer structure and properties, to commercialization of polymers that improve sustainability, health, and safety. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors, she has been recognized as an outstanding mentor by Caltech’s Graduate Students and received the Bingham Medal of the Society of Rheology, among other honors.

Disclosure: Prof. Kornfield is a co-founder and has a financial interest in Fluid Efficiency.