Y.A. Liu, the Frank C. Vilbrandt Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering, earned one of the highest academic honors from Virginia Tech 10 years ago when the Board of Visitors appointed him Alumni Distinguished Professor.

Citing his accomplishments over the past decade, the board renewed Liu’s appointment this spring for his ongoing commitment to distinguished scholarship and engagement within and well beyond the university.

“Your reappointment as Alumni Distinguished Professor is a testament to your commitment to the best about higher education and Virginia Tech,” Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke wrote in his notification letter to Liu. “Your colleagues and I hold you in high regard, and we benefit from your contributions and commitment to our highest principles and values. Thank you for your continued dedication to your profession and to the university.”

Liu tends to avoid the spotlight, but recently reiterated comments similar to those he made when first appointed. “Often my happiest moments every week are receiving letters, emails, and phone calls from former students,” Liu has said. “Their continuing cheering and encouragement, together with the strong support I receive from the university administration, is the most significant factor in all I have achieved in my career at Virginia Tech since 1982. I continue to be a most blessed and fortunate person.”

The Alumni Distinguished Professorship is a preeminent faculty appointment, reserved by the Board of Visitors for recognition of faculty members who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishments and academic citizenship through substantive scholarly contributions in teaching, research or creative activity, and engagement, according to the provost’s office.

Since joining the College of Engineering faculty, Liu has achieved international recognition for his promotion of sustainable development and environmental stewardship. He and his graduate students have made significant contributions in the areas of energy and water savings, carbon dioxide capture, and sustainable design of polymer, biodiesel, and petroleum refining processes.

His list of awards and recognitions has only grown over the past decade. In 2015, Liu became the first Virginia Tech faculty member in the past 40 years to be honored as a U.S. Professor of the Year, and, at the same time, he was recognized as Virginia Professor of the Year. 

He has received awards twice from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the leading global organization of chemical engineering professionals and students. These include the 2021 Professional Achievement Award for Innovations in Green Process Engineering and the 2020 Excellence in Process Development Research Award. Additionally, he was honored as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2019. 

For 28 years, from 1992-2019, Liu has devoted his university breaks to helping Asian petrochemical industries with sustainable energy and environment. He has been a founder and an instructor of the SINOPEC and PetroChina (2021 Fortune Global 500 Top 2 and Top 4 companies) Simulation Training Centers in Beijing, co-sponsored by Aspen Technology and Virginia Tech since 1997, to promote sustainable design and environment. Liu and the instructors he trained have taught 7,500 practicing engineers on sustainable design and practice.

During the past 10 years alone, Liu and his graduate students have published four groundbreaking textbooks on methodologies used for sustainable design. He was granted a patent in 2020 for “Energy-Efficient Extraction of Acid Gasses from Power Plant Flue Gas,” which is being implemented to capture annually 1 million tons of carbon dioxide from power plant flue gas at SINOPEC’s Shengli Oil Field for oil recovery. He also directs the Center of Excellence in Process System Engineering — a multi-year agreement among Aspen Technology Inc., other industrial partners, and the Virginia Tech Foundation. 

Most importantly, Liu has remained deeply involved with his students. He continues to advise Ph.D. and master’s degree students. He is faculty advisor to the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, promoting cultural diversity on campus, and to the Virginia Tech student chapter of AIChE. Under his guidance, Virginia Tech has won AIChE’s Outstanding Student Chapter Award four times since 2014 and received the AIChE Process Development Division Student Paper Award in 2020. In 2021, AIChE honored Liu with the Outstanding Student Chapter Advisor Award, selected from advisors to 380 student chapters across 54 countries.

In its announcement of his reappointment, the Board of Visitors noted this commitment to student well-being and development: “He has continued to teach the most difficult and time-consuming courses in the engineering curriculum. … For these courses, he recruited industrial partners to develop hands-on design projects and provided experienced project advisors to work closely with graduating seniors each spring semester.”

This energy-intensive work is informed by Liu’s Christian faith and his role as a minister at Blacksburg Baptist Church. “It motivates me to be more caring and responsive to student needs both in and outside of the classrooms,” he said.

The impact of this care and attention reverberates through generations of the university’s chemical engineering alumni — including department head Steven Wrenn.

“Y.A. taught me senior design, so I can personally attest to the positive experience and value of his teaching,” Wrenn said. “I implemented one of the approaches he taught in senior design during my first year on the job in the fine chemicals industry.”

Suinda Ossenkopp, who graduated in May, said Liu had a major influence on her undergraduate career. When she didn’t quite understand a theorem in class, he would sit with her and go over it until she got it. When Ossenkopp realized she needed more experience to become competitive in the job market, Liu brought her into his lab to work as an undergraduate researcher.

“Dr. Liu really does help in taking a student and turning them into a working individual. That transformation happens in his class,” Ossenkopp said. “I saw that within myself and with other students. He takes students and turns them into professionals.”

This summer, Ossenkopp will start her first full-time job at Eastman Chemical.

Share this story