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New NSF grant gives early-career faculty competitive edge

Thursday, September 10, 2015

LAWRENCE — A new, four-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support research aimed at developing novel technologies for converting plant biomass into chemical and fuel intermediates. The outcome is a renewable source of feedstock that can be used to manufacture plastics and other products currently made from petroleum crude.

The award supports a team of researchers from the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) at the University of Kansas and the University of South Carolina. 

Bala Subramaniam, Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor in KU’s Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering, is director of CEBC and the lead researcher on the new project.

“We are excited to partner with the University of South Carolina catalysis group,” he said. “This latest NSF funding allows us to address the grand challenge problem: How do you reconstruct naturally occurring lignin to make petrochemical-equivalent chemicals, instead of burning it?”  

Lignin is a class of complex organic polymers found in all sorts of plants.  It is a major byproduct of agricultural processing. Archer Daniels Midland, a CEBC industry partner, will provide lignin samples for the project.

"A unique aspect of this grant,” said Subramaniam, “is the nontraditional mentoring opportunities for several young professors, including new collaborations across-disciplines with academic and industry partners, and course development with new student-engagement strategies.”    

Early-career KU researchers on the project are Franklin Tao, Miller associate professor with joint appointments in the departments of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering and Chemistry; Juan J. Bravo Suarez, C&PE assistant professor; Marco Caricato, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry; and Anand Ramanathan, research associate, CEBC. 

The lead researcher at the University of South Carolina, John Regalbuto, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, joins Subramaniam and R.V. Chaudhari, Deane E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering, as mentors for the early-career faculty.

The award is one of eight interstate grants announced recently by NSF through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) initiative. A major goal of the NSF EPSCoR initiative is to provide researchers significant opportunities to pursue national priorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The grant accordingly expects recipients to develop a STEM workforce, particularly early-career faculty, that can develop and sustain flourishing research programs.

The NSF announcement may be found here.

More information about the CEBC is available online.

Chemistry department receives more than $8.5 million in research grants annually
14 chemistry faculty members have NSF CAREER Awards
Longest-running chemistry Research Experience for Undergraduates in the nation
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