U.Va. Engineering Professors Are Part of National Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

October 29, 2008

October 29, 2008 — Two University of Virginia engineering professors — Robert Davis, professor and chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Matt Neurock, professor of chemical engineering and chemistry — are part of a unique research team in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State University.

The main goal of the center, which was funded during the summer of 2008 by a five-year, $18.5 million grant from NSF, is to develop technologies that can transform today's fossil-fuel-based chemical industry into an industry based on biorenewable carbon feedstocks.

The center's research will be divided into three areas. One will focus on extracting the cellular machinery in plants; one will work to express that machinery in microbes, and one, the chemical catalyst design team, will work to convert the molecules produced by microbes into chemicals that can be used by industry.

Davis and Neurock are on the chemical catalyst design team and will lead the center in international collaborations.

"The center has a very broad vision that has the potential to transform the chemical industry," Davis said.

The center's vision is to integrate research communities that haven't previously worked together — those that are studying biocatalytic technologies and those that are studying chemical catalytic technologies.

"Forming collaborations that include researchers from chemical engineering, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology will make a great deal possible," Davis said.
Another goal of the center is to help students become creative, innovative engineers by exposing them to multidisciplinary research that can advance the production of biorenewable chemicals. The educational component of the center will include programs for high school, undergraduate and graduate students located at each partner institution.

Science teachers at some Iowa middle schools are already bringing the NSF program into their classrooms. Teachers are also introducing research opportunities to high school students with an interest in engineering.

"We're beginning to set up partnerships and workshops focused on teachers in Charlottesville," Davis said. "The local community will surely benefit from these efforts, as students move forward from one stage of their education to the next."

Students in higher education will also benefit from the partnership. "In addition to support for student collaborations and research, engineering students at U.Va will have the opportunity to intern and study abroad with scientists in Germany and Denmark," he said.

Researchers in all three research areas will also create modules that can be taught to University students via distance education.

"We are pleased that our faculty have the opportunity to work with colleagues at Iowa State University and elsewhere on this important research," James H. Aylor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said. "Everyone involved will benefit from this collaboration."

About the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State University

The center is part of NSF's Generation Three Engineering Research Centers Program, established to create university and industry partnerships that promote innovation, transform engineered systems, advance technology and produce engineering graduates who can creatively contribute to a global economy. Other domestic partners include the University of New Mexico, Rice University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Irvine. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, Calif., is also affiliated with this program, as well as international institutions including the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Germany and the Technical University of Denmark.

— By Josie Loyd