Chemical and biological processes for biomass conversion are the key to unlocking the potiential of biomass as a widely available feedstock for sustainable biorefining. To operate these processes economically and sustainably, biomass needs to be refined for the production of not only high-demand low-value commodity chemicals (e.g. ethanol biofuel), but also high value products. New refining technologies need to be developed for feedstock fractionation and conversion, which face challenges associated with the structural complexity and the chemical heterogeneity of biomass.
The low-cost transformation of biomass to platform chemicals (e.g. sugars, organic acids, phenolics) and the subsequent conversion to high value products are instrumental processes in the upgrading biomass feedstocks. To make these processes possible, better understanding in plant biopolymer chemistry and biomass conversion engineering is essential. My research will focus on 1) the use of spectroscopic and microscopic techniques in furthering the understanding of plant cell wall morphology and the key biochemical conversion processes, as well as 2) biomass process engineering including biomimetic enzyme-free catalysis and distributed small-scale biomass processing. A holistic approach that integrates all steps of biorefining will be employed to explore solutions with the greatest potential in commercialization. The research work will also be used to develop curricula and activities that convey renewable concepts in educational programs involving undergraduate students and pre-college students.
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