As biosystems engineers, we take system (engineering, biology, chemistry, and analytics) approaches to find solutions for some of the sustainability challenges in the food, energy, and water nexus. Our research goal is to understand and develop bioprocesses for biofuels, bioproducts, and renewable materials by exploring the interfaces between chemistry, engineering and biology. Specific research themes include:
1) Lignin valorization for fuels, chemicals, and advanced materials
We develop conversion processes for effective lignin fractionation and extraction from cellulosic biomass. Lignin is the second most abundant biopolymer in nature. However, in current bio-refinery concept, lignin is commonly burned for generating steam and electricity. Converting lignin waste streams to high value-added chemicals will greatly enhance the economic viability and success of a biorefinery. Collaborating with plant scientists, we study the impact of lignin modification (transgenic plants) on lignin extraction and optimize a process for generating a range of low molecule weight phenolics highly amenable to catalytic conversion to fuels and chemicals. We also investigate lignin based nano-composite materials for novel applications in catalysis, water treatment and energy storage.
2) Ionic liquid (IL) based catalysis and biocatalysis
Great opportunities have emerged for using ionic liquid (IL) as solvent, reaction media and catalyst to enable cost effective and efficient bioprocessing technologies for broad applications. A new generation of low cost, task-specific, and biocompatible ILs can be generated from natural bases and acids using protein, sugars and phenolics. We investigate catalysis and biocatalysis routes in ILs for potential applications relevant to sustainable manufacturing, including: compounds extraction, CO2 utilization, bioremediation, and cellulose/lignin derived chemicals and materials.
3) Bioprocessing for food and agricultural applications
The three elements of food-energy-water nexus are interconnected and all tie to sustainable agriculture. The abuse and the addiction to synthetic agrochemicals and fertilizers threaten the environment and the sustainability of agriculture. New bioprocesses are being developed in our lab to convert agricultural wastes to bioproducts for agricultural applications. The natural, bio-derived products offer an environmentally friendly and sustainable solution to the use of synthetic chemicals. Under this theme, we investigate ways to convert agricultural and food processing wastes to biofertilizer, biocontrol agent and crop yield enhancers.
Our research is funded by the following funding agencies:
National Science Foundation (NSF)
United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA)
Kentucky NSF EPSCoR
Kentucky Science & Engineering Foundation (KSEF)