Scientist earns top national award for biofuels research

By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

xiao-zhang-80RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University professor Xiao Zhang has received a prestigious National Science Foundation award to junior faculty for his work in converting tough plant material to liquid fuels.

He is developing an innovative chemical pathway to convert lignin to open chain hydrocarbons similar to those that make up jet fuel. The results will lead to new processes for producing sustainable fuel and improving economic and environmental sustainability of biorefinery operations.

“This is a potentially transformative technology, which can lead to large scale utilization of lignin,’’ said Zhang, assistant professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU Tri-Cities.

Five-year collaboration

Lignin is a complex component of plants that gives them rigidity. In the paper industry, millions of tons of lignin are already used as fuel for generating electricity. Researchers are interested in converting lignin to liquid fuel, but current methods require a lot of hydrogen and a tremendous amount of energy.

Students work in Zhang’s lab at WSU Tri-Cities.

“They have to invest a lot of energy to make energy, which in our opinion is not the best way to go,’’ Zhang said.

The $500,000 five-year Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award will allow Zhang, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory collaborators and industrial partners to develop a new method to break apart the tough ring of the lignin molecule at mild temperatures. This will simultaneously produce value added chemicals suitable for carbon fiber production.

“It’s a very recalcitrant molecule,’’ he said. “If the process were straightforward, everyone would have thought of it already.’’

Training sustainable-energy workforce

Before joining WSU, Zhang worked for FPInnovations, one of the world’s largest forest products research institutions. He has a long-standing interest in the use of lignin, one the world’s largest sources of renewable material.

The CAREER project will provide opportunities for training future scientists and a workforce for sustainable energy development. Zhang will work with companies in the chemical and pulp and paper industries to implement several unique programs to educate graduate, undergraduate and middle and high school students.

According to the NSF website, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.