Bioenergy Expert Named Governor’s Chair

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art-ragauskasArthur Ragauskas, an authority in bioenergy, has been named the fifteenth UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair.

He will serve as Governor’s Chair for Biorefining, based in UT’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with a complementary appointment in the UT Institute of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries. He will serve in the US Energy and Environmental Sciences Directorate, Biosciences Division, at ORNL and as a member of the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center (BESC).

He begins at UT on June 1.

Ragauskas comes to UT from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and researcher within the Institute of Paper Science and Technology. This year, he was honored with the American Chemical Society’s Award for Affordable Free Chemistry and the Gunnar Nicholson Gold Medal Award from TAPPI, an arm of the American Paper and Pulp Association.

In 2013, Ragauskas was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he served as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy from 2008 to 2009. He was also a visiting fellow at ORNL in 2013, working on a carbon fiber initiative for the lab’s Energy and Environmental Sciences Directorate.

Ragauskas’s research is important to uncovering ways to convert biomass to biofuels, biopower, and biomaterials. Specifically, his work focuses on converting plant matter such as lingocellulose, found in the cell walls of energy crops, into biofuels. He also works to uncover applications of bio-based chemicals and materials for use in areas ranging from health care to packing material. As a founding member of BESC, Ragauskas served as the lead scientist of the Georgia Tech team researching the in-depth cell wall characterization of pretreated switch grass and poplar biomass.

“Art’s leadership in bioenergy research holds exceptional promise in making products and materials better than what we use today and better for the environment,” said UT Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “His work expands UT’s research interest in developing sustainable energy solutions and holds great promise for collaborations with our other Governor’s Chairs and faculty.”

Biomass is the only renewable source of carbon-based fuels and chemicals, and the United States has sufficient biomass stock to supply more than 1.3 billion dry tons per year, according to Ragauskas. Yet despite the nation’s biomass abundance, conversion of biomass to biofuel remains expensive.

Ragauskas aims to change this.

“Using plant materials to take the place of plastics and other hydrocarbons in materials can work wonders for the environment, as it lessens our demand for petroleum and creates products that are biodegradable with net reductions in carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

Ragauskas said he plans to collaborate with UT students and faculty and ORNL research scientists to develop biorefining research programs. He also looks forward to utilizing resources at UT such as the polymer characterization laboratory and biomass processing facilities as well as ORNL resources like the Spallation Neutron Source and Titan supercomputer.

“The Governor’s Chair position leverages the world-class students, faculty, researchers, and research infrastructure at UT and ORNL focused on biorefining and the potential of developing translational collaborative research in this field that will impact the state, nation, and world,” he said, adding that he aims to establish biorefining laboratories at both institutions.

Ragauskas has served as a program leader for Georgia Tech’s focused research program in biofuels, biopower, and biomaterials; a research theme leader at Georgia Tech, Imperial College London, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and team leader for the industrial consortium program Fiber Modification/Fiber Fiber Bonding. In 2008, he was nominated to the National Commission of Energy Policy and received the William H. Aiken Research Prize, among other honors for his research and teaching.

“The renewable biofuels enterprise is moving toward the development and commercialization of biomaterials from biomass feedstocks, largely to improve the cost of biofuel production,” said Martin Keller, ORNL’s associate lab director for energy and environmental sciences. “UT and ORNL have a strong role in the basic and applied research needed to accelerate the economic viability of this approach, and Dr. Ragauskas brings to both institutions an international reputation and skill set that will help strategically position us for this new phase in renewable fuels and biomaterials research.”

Ragauskas received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario.

The UT–ORNL Tennessee Governor’s Chair Program is funded by the state of Tennessee and ORNL. It is designed to attract exceptionally accomplished researchers from around the world to boost joint research efforts that position the partnership as a leader in the fields of biological science, computational science, advanced materials, and neutron science.

Other UT–ORNL Governor’s Chairs are:

  • Jeremy Smith, a computational biologist who came to UT and ORNL from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He was appointed in 2006.
  • Howard Hall, an expert in nuclear security who came to UT and ORNL from Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Yilu Liu, an electric grid researcher who came to UT and ORNL from Virginia Tech. She was appointed in 2009.
  • Frank Loeffler, a biologist and environmental engineer who came to UT and ORNL from Georgia Tech. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Alexei Sokolov, a polymer scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the University of Akron. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Robert Williams, a genetics and biomedical researcher who was the Dunavant Chair in the Department of Pediatrics at UT Health Science Center. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Thomas Zawodzinski, an energy storage researcher who came to UT and ORNL from Case Western Reserve University. He was appointed in 2009.
  • William Weber, a materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He was appointed in 2010.
  • Brian Wirth, a radiation expert who came to UT and ORNL from the University of California, Berkeley. He was appointed in 2010.
  • Terry Hazen, an environmental biologist who came to UT and ORNL from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was appointed in 2011.
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the University of California, Berkeley. He began his position in 2013.
  • Sudarsanam Suresh Babu, a materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from The Ohio State University. He began his position in 2013.
  • Steve Zinkle, a nuclear engineering and materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from another position at ORNL. He began his position in 2013.
  • Robert Davis, a biomedical informatics scientist who came to the UT Health Science Center and ORNL from the Center for Health Research Southeast with Kaiser Permanente Georgia. He began his position in 2013.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460, wheins@utk.edu)

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