CBI recognizes achievements of four veteran contributors

The Center for Bioenergy Innovation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory depends on the efforts of its nationwide community of scientists for the continuation of its success as a research center. CBI’s pioneering researchers have leveraged their deep expertise in biochemistry, molecular biology, genomics, and chemical and biological engineering to make fundamental advancements for the efficient breakdown and conversion of biomass into sustainable fuels and bioproducts.

CBI is one of four Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers focused on advancing biofuel and bioproduct production processes to grow a vibrant domestic bioeconomy. The center is specifically accelerating the development of bioenergy-relevant plants and microbes to enable production of sustainable aviation fuel, bioproducts that sequester carbon, and renewable replacements for plastics and other environmentally harmful products.

The researchers highlighted below have devoted their careers to advancing the field of bioenergy in varying ways and have collaborated extensively with CBI to fulfill its mission and support our sustainable global future. In the process, they have contributed to and authored countless academic papers, earned some of the most prestigious awards and positions within their fields, and served as mentors for generations of young scientists.

Richard Dixon

Richard Dixon is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Texas, and a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, Texas A&M University. Among his previous appointments, Dixon served as Distinguished Professor and Samuel Roberts Noble Research Chair, senior vice president, and founding director of the Plant Biology Division at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Some highlights from his extensive list of accolades include being named a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Society of Plant Biologists. He was also named by the Institute of Scientific Information as one of the 10 most cited authors in the plant and animal sciences; he has published more than 520 academic papers and chapters and has been cited more than 92,000 times. He earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford, UK.

Dixon’s work has centered on using the tools of biochemistry and molecular biology to understand and engineer metabolic pathways for natural products made by plants and the implications this has for agriculture and human health. He has also worked to understand and engineer a form of plant material called lignocellulosic biomass, essentially plant material not used for food, for the improvement of forage and feedstocks for bioenergy. Working with CBI, he was able to elucidate genetic and metabolic pathways for the synthesis of a compound called C-lignin. This novel lignin is important because of its increased potential for valorization, or increased yield, as a substrate for bioenergy. This important work will allow for the engineering of high value “designer” forms of lignin in future bioenergy crops.

As the field of bioenergy continues to mature and researchers continue to develop more tools to stimulate and alter the growth of plant polymers like lignin, Dixon looks forward to seeing researchers create more advanced and cost-effective biofuels, including sustainable jet fuels, as well as bioproducts. He believes that plant polymers may be able to replace many of the materials we currently make from petroleum and its byproducts, including carbon fiber.

“Although fuel is currently the pressing driver, this research can lay the basis for a green solution to replacement of petroleum across a range of industries,” Dixon said.

Looking to the future, Dixon advises young scientists in the bioenergy field to choose an area that captures their curiosity while providing basic knowledge to support the growth of the field, regardless of whether their work immediately translates to new products. “Recognize the multidisciplinary nature of this field and engage with other groups to further your research goals and expand your horizons,” said Dixon. “CBI provides a wonderful environment for such interactions.”

Tom Richard

Tom Richard is a professor of agricultural and biological engineering and the former director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment. He also serves as director of the Northeast Regional Sun Grant Center for the Department of Agriculture, sits on the Agricultural Science Committee of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, and is the deputy technical director for the DOE National Risk Assessment Partnership for geologic carbon sequestration. Over his academic career, he has contributed to more than 150 research and technical publications, been named a fellow of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers as well as the Institute of Biological Engineering and served as president of the Institute of Biological Engineering. He earned his doctorate at Cornell University.

Richard’s work focuses on applying engineering perspectives to ecosystems to develop innovative strategies for more sustainable agriculture in the emerging bio-based economy. He is particularly interested in microbial processes that occur in three-phase media like soil or compost, where solids, liquids, and gases all play critical roles, and in applying engineering solutions to maximize sustainability in bioenergy.

Working with colleagues in CBI, Richard has helped to integrate the capture and storage of carbon into technological and economic sustainability models. Through this work, he has helped to illustrate the social and environmental benefits of producing bioenergy crops. Richard and his collaborators showed that bioenergy systems—living systems that sequester carbon from the atmosphere while producing usable biofuels and high carbon residues—can provide significantly greater sustainability benefits than agricultural and forest ecosystems.

Looking to the future, Richard sees bioenergy as an indispensable tool for fighting climate change. He believes we must use alternative biofuels to build an energy sector that actively removes carbon from the environment. “Finally, we now recognize that slowing emissions is not enough; climate disasters are upon us and we need to reverse emissions. For the future, I would argue that the world needs the climate mitigation benefits of carbon negative bioenergy even more than it needs the energy,” says Richard.

Speaking to young scientists interested in bioenergy, Richard suggests they balance pursuing specialties while also developing well-rounded skillsets that can benefit group efforts in a wide range of disciplines and challenges. “To find the right solutions we need to approach these complex topics with expertise but also humility, with knowledge but also curiosity, and with enthusiasm but also patience.” 

Jan Westpheling

Jan Westpheling is a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia. She has also served as a member of the National Research Council Committee on the Development and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures Against Biological Warfare Agents, and the Biotechnology for Biofuels Editorial Board. Westpheling has received numerous teaching and research awards including the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology Charles Porter Award, the Lily Teaching Fellowship, and the University of Georgia Medal for Creative Research. She earned her doctorate from the John Innes Institute, UK.

Westpheling’s work has focused on finding creative solutions to the current problems facing researchers trying to convert lignocellulosic biomass from crops like poplar and switchgrass into ethanol and other useful products. She has used genomic and biochemical tools to identify and study microbes and enzymes capable of assisting in this process. She is particularly interested in a special class of microorganisms called thermophiles or hyperthermophiles (literally “heat lovers”), capable of surviving and producing functional enzymes in the high temperatures of the biomass conversion process.

Working with CBI, she was able to manipulate the genetics of a thermophilic microbe called Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, adding genes from another microbe to alter the metabolism of C. bescii to cause it to produce ethanol from switchgrass without the costly pretreatment process that is typical of such a conversion. This discovery has helped increase the economic viability of bioproduction of ethanol and other products and will pave the way for further improvements in the future.

Looking to the future of bioenergy, Westpheling sees collaboration and multidisciplinary science as necessary keys to overcoming the problems faced in the field. “Addressing a problem like sustainable energy requires many people from very different backgrounds: engineers of all types, geneticists, chemists, crystallographers, economists, and environmental experts to name a few,” she said. She also believes that DOE-funded centers like CBI are central to the future of the field.

Speaking to young scientists interested in bioenergy, Westpheling advises following your passion and letting it guide your career. “Being a scientist can be a tough business, but if you love something it’s worth it,” she said. “Let the extent of your talent be your limitation, not your reluctance to take risks.”

Charles Wyman

Charles Wyman recently retired as a Distinguished Professor in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at the UCR Center for Environmental Research and Technology. Among his past appointments, Wyman was the Paul E. and Joan H. Queneau Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering Design at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College and served as director of the Biotechnology Center for Fuels and Chemicals at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. He is a cofounder of and former chief development officer and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for Mascoma Corporation, a startup focused on biomass conversion to ethanol and other products. He also cofounded Vertimass LLC, devoted to commercialization of novel catalytic technology for simple one-step conversion of ethanol and other alcohols to fungible gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel blendstocks. Among the many honors he has received, Wyman was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He has authored and contributed to more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, 40 book chapters and edited volumes, and 21 US patents. He is the founding editor-in-chief of Biotechnology for Biofuels and Bioproducts. He earned his doctorate at Princeton University.

Wyman has devoted most of his career to advancing technology for biological conversion of nonedible cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other products. His longstanding collaboration with CBI has been underscored by many scientific accomplishments, such as the demonstration of synergistic ways to combine the pretreatment of biomass—the process by which certain chemicals like cellulose are made available for conversion into more useful compounds like sugars—and consolidated bioprocessing, the combined biological processes of releasing and converting sugars in biomass into useful bioproducts like ethanol.

As climate change increasingly affects our daily lives, Wyman sees the commercialization of low carbon fuels as vital to reducing carbon emissions. These fuels “provide the most viable near-term and likely long-term route for low-cost production of such low carbon liquid fuels that through integration into the existing infrastructure can shorten the time to lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation,” he said. “Biomass conversion technologies can also provide unique opportunities to sequester carbon.”

Wyman advises young researchers to be forward-thinking and to focus on work that can enhance the economic competitiveness of technologies that are beneficial to society and to the environment.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. —Galen Fader