Issue Date: February 3, 2014
ACS Award For Affordable Green Chemistry
Sponsored by Dow Chemical and endowed by Rohm and Haas
Two-thirds of the Canadian province of Ontario is covered in forestland. But the idea that woody biomass would become the fibrous heart of today’s biobased economy would have seemed a peculiar notion when Arthur J. Ragauskas started his science education at the University of Western Ontario in 1976.
Ragauskas, 57, did know the value of scientific studies and a university education, thanks to his parents who encouraged him early on. As a college student he received mentoring from professor Jake B. Stothers and chose chemistry as his major. His early studies pointed in the direction of green chemistry, and he completed a Ph.D. in chemistry at Western in 1985.
As a postdoctoral fellow, Ragauskas received a one-year grant from the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada. To make the most of the opportunity, he was told “you have to do something way out of your field,” he recalls. “And the edge of the universe at that time was carbohydrate chemistry.”
He pursued that subject at the University of Alberta and later at Colorado State University. After a two-year stint as a research scientist at the National Research Council of Canada, he began to look for an academic position.
By then, his work on uses of plant-based carbohydrates for materials—and his bent for practical applications—led him to Georgia’s Institute of Paper Science & Technology (IPST), where he became an assistant professor in 1989. At the institute he was advised to take on a project that needed help; its focus was the study of lignin. “At the time, lignin was not the most promising field,” Ragauskas admits.
In 2003, when he was an associate professor, IPST was absorbed into the School of Chemistry & Biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology. The institution opened up a broad, multidisciplinary research portfolio and new context for his work with wood. In 2006, Ragauskas and his colleagues published a paper in Science titled “The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials” (DOI: 10.1126/science.1114736). “Although the biorefinery issue had been discussed for some time, professor Ragauskas’s Science paper crystallized these issues and brought this science and technology to the forefront of public attention,” says Charles L. Liotta, chair of the School of Chemistry & Biochemistry at Georgia Tech.
Ragauskas has worked on transforming biomass to fuels and materials such as nanocellulose composites and films. He is currently Georgia Tech’s team leader at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center, based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Working with the center’s investigators, he has explored the fundamentals of biomass recalcitrance, taking advantage of advances in imaging technology including Förster resonance energy transfer, time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry, and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry to analyze the surface chemistry of biomass during pretreatment and enzymatic deconstruction. His team, which includes 27 graduate students, also develops NMR techniques to characterize chemical conversions via catalysis.
He held the first Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy Technology at Chalmers University of Technology in 2008–09 and is a fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science.
Ragauskas will present the award address before the Division of Energy & Fuels.
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