Emerging Investigator Series: Chamila Gunathilake

Chamila Gunathilake is currently working as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, at the University of Peradeniya. He received his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He completed his Ph.D. in Nano Science and Engineering at KSU,  OH, USA. His current work focuses on the development of nanoporous and mesoporous carbon silica materials with organic pendant and bridging groups and incorporated metal (aluminum, zirconium, calcium, and magnesium) species for low, ambient, and high-temperature carbon dioxide (CO2) sorption, phosphorous-hydroxy functionalized mesoporous silica materials for water treatment, and amidoxime-modified ordered mesoporous silica materials for uranium sorption under seawater conditions. He has so far received nine awards including three ACS awards: ACS-(Industrial & Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Symposium Award for the year 2015 (ACS 250) and 2016 (ACS 252) and ACS Environmental Chemistry Student Award for the year 2016 (ACS 251) and Presidential Award for Scientific Publication in 2019. His academic career has resulted in approximately 30 publications and 44 international conference papers holding an H factor of 20 and an I-10 index of 15. (ACS-American Chemical Society)


Read Chamila Gunathilake’s Emerging Investigator Series article “Emerging investigator series: Synthesis of Magnesium Oxide Nanoparticles Fabricated on Graphene Oxide Nanocomposite for CO2 Sequestration at Elevated Temperatures” and read more about him in the interview below:


Recent Emerging Investigator Series paper focuses on Synthesis of Magnesium Oxide Nanoparticles Fabricated on Graphene Oxide Nanocomposite for CO2 Sequestration at Elevated Temperatures. How has your research evolved from your first article to this most recent article? 

My first paper, Mesoporous organosilica–alumina composites and their thermal treatment in nitrogen for carbon dioxide sorption at elevated temperatures, was emerged from grad life. During my graduate research life, I have experienced with various metal-organic frameworks (MOF) synthesis, surface characterization, and assembly of nanoscale materials and methods to integrate nanomaterials with other materials via polymer assisted self-assembly process for environmental and catalytic applications, including high-temperature carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration from power plant, treatment of wastewater streams, uranium extraction from seawater. Grad life is the best moment in my life, and it paved the way to increase my boundaries of thought, where I felt my capacity to do something fascinating is still undiscovered inside. This is the first time I worked with graphene and graphene oxide that blended with magnesium to produce nanocomposites and applied to high-temperature CO2 sorption. I obtained impressive results that are highly comparable to the materials I have studied in the past that led to thirtieth publications in 2020.


What aspect of your work are you most excited about at the moment?


At the moment, I am interested in designing novel sorbents for polluted water treatment and uranium extraction from seawater. As you know water is essential for life on earth, and consequently, it must be obtained in pure form. Water pollution problems are most serious in large cities in developing countries like my mother country, Sri Lanka. Currenntly, many people are suffering from kidney disease caused by heavy metals and I am trying to find an alternative solution to resolve this issue. Testing specific surface-functionalized mesoporous silica materials for uranium sorption under seawater conditions is another interesting project. Although the concentration of uranium in seawater is only about 3 ppb, a gigantic volume of all oceans (about 1.37 billion Km3) contains about 4.5 billion tons of uranium. I would say, if we can recover only 50 % of this resource, it would be enough to upkeep nuclear reactors worldwide for about 6,500 years. Among many actinide elements, uranium is the major and common fuel for nuclear reactors. Thus, there is a great interest in extracting uranium from seawater and use it as an alternative sustainable energy source. The final goal is to design composite materials with desired porosity, surface area, and functionality by selecting proper metal oxide precursors, organosilanes, and block copolymer templates and by adjusting synthesis conditions for the aforementioned applications


In your opinion, what are the most important questions to be asked/answered in this field of research?


Uranium extraction from seawater, I believe the most pressing question would be, how can we increase the adsorption capacity and rate of adsorption of uranium with the designed material. Typically to extract 1 Kg of yellow uranium cake, the average submerging time of the sample is six months. Moreover, it is necessary to know how to overcome issues such as handling nanomaterials in seawater and accessing a large amount of seawater for given materials. 


Regarding the application of CO2 sorption, there has been an issue to apply those materials under practical operating conditions. Thus, I believe the requirement of proper engineering design and studying recycle stability and reusability studies is mandatory.


What do you find most challenging about your research?


Any person would love to feel the pristine nature of the environment than a grimy one. We as chemical engineers/ chemists are the major stakeholders responsible for making the planet earth free of venomous debris. So, I firmly believe that it is our responsibility to give back mother nature and its’ glory again. We will be able to rectify at least some percentage of mistakes committed by our own by doing so. I do feel emphasis shown towards the environment should be more and we should be at the forefront of educating the community. I feel that science & engineering helps me to better understand issues regarding carbon dioxide capture, wastewater treatment, uranium extraction, and gives me a chance to make the earth a better place to live. However, getting at the heart of any research question in the Environmental field requires extensive knowledge in other fields. Sometimes, I wish I could have another graduate degree in Environmental, Polymer and Chemical engineering all at once to understand just one piece of the puzzle. Extending into literature outside my comfort zone is always challenging.


In which upcoming conferences or events may our readers meet you?


I will be in Nano 9, a conference in Poland in September where my graduate advisor holds a co-chair position in Nano 9. 


How do you spend your spare time?


I enjoy spending time with my staff members, friends, and family members. I most of the time willing to help people who essentially need our hand to live. Outside the academic work, I mostly preferred for traveling through nature made aesthetic places. Most of the spare time, I listen to music and play sports. 


Which profession would you choose if you were not a scientist?


If I were not in academics, I always thought that I’d like to be a travelling guide who helped tourists to travel throughout my small country. 


Can you share one piece of career-related advice or wisdom with other early-career scientists?


At different stages of life, we are working on different efficiencies. In case one stage fails, you can turn your life into a better place in the next stage. So, for early-career scientists, I would recommend collaborating strategically with people from different fields and developing your unique research brand. While working with them, learn a lot about teamwork, learn how to interact with different people and share your skills with them. Participate in national and international oral and poster presentations, present your research, encounter cutting-edge science of different fields, hear the latest information in your areas of professional interest, and network with colleagues.





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