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Shifting society’s dependence on petroleum-based fuels and chemicals to biomass derived products is important not only to reduce our carbon footprint but also to increase the robustness of our energy security and economic stability. There are emerging needs to address some of the societal and sustainability challenges in the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus. The research areas we are working on under bioprocess engineering are well suited to meet the FEW demands. Aligned with these research priorities, our overarching research goal is to understand and develop novel bioprocesses and models to produce biofuels, bioproducts, and renewable materials by exploring the interface between chemistry, engineering, and system biology.  

1) Molecular dynamics-guided enzyme engineering for biocatalysis in novel solvent systems

Great opportunities have emerged for using ionic liquid or deep eutectic solvent as solvent, reaction medium and catalyst to enable cost effective and efficient bioprocessing technologies for broad applications. The superior and tunable properties of these novel solvents make them suitable for processing many recalcitrant natural and synthetic polymers. We explore catalysis and biocatalysis routes in these novel solvent systems for potential applications related to plastic upcycling, compounds extraction, CO2 capture, bioremediation, and cellulose/lignin derived chemicals and materials. Data-driven enzyme engineering approaches (including bioprospecting, molecular dynamic simulation of enzyme-solvent interactions, rational design of enzymes, and surface charge engineering) are being explored in our lab. 

2) Lignin valorization for chemicals and advanced materials

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 derived nano-composite materials for novel applications in catalysis, antimicrobial, and energy storage. 

3) Biomass feedstock logistics and modeling

Significant knowledge gaps exist in understanding and mitigating the variabilities in biomass feedstocks such as composition, structure, chemistry, and inorganics and their impact on biological and thermochemical conversion. Systems based research is needed to correlate biomass chemical characteristics (using advanced analytical tools) to the performance of conversion process and feedstock supply systems. Our group is developing novel predictive models connecting the chemical and physical characterization of biomass-derived feedstocks with efficiencies in biomass conversions. Such models will be integrated and used to develop TEA/LCA guided feedstock preprocessing/variation mitigation strategies. 

4) Nanotechnology and fermentation for food and agricultural applications

The three elements of food-energy-water nexus are interconnected and tied to sustainable agriculture. Overuse and overreliance on synthetic agrochemicals and fertilizers are threatening the environment, the ecosystem, and the sustainability of agriculture. A transition from synthetic to biobased products is a long-term challenge. New bioprocesses are being developed in our lab to convert agricultural wastes to bioproducts for agricultural applications. To achieve that, we investigate interactions between biomass-derived chemicals and nanoparticles and the microbiome in food and agricultural systems and based on the mechanistic understanding of their interactions to formulate novel products such as antimicrobials, biofertilizer, biocontrol agent and crop yield enhancers. 

*Our research is supported by the following funding agencies:


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