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ChemE Wins Genius Grant

Oct. 14, 2020
Professor receives award for using renewable resources to make chemicals

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago, annually awards fellowships — often referred to as “genius grants” — that provide each winner with $625,000, no strings attached.

Besides bestowing a sizable and unrestricted grant, the program also is unusual in the breadth of fields considered and its use of a constantly changing, widely diverse pool of nominators.

The foundation selects fellows using three criteria: 1) exceptional creativity; 2) the promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments; and 3) the potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Its website gives details of all awards since the fellowships began in 1981. The winners come from an incredibly diverse variety of fields and backgrounds.

In early October, the foundation announced its 2020 roster of fellows. (See: www.macfound.org/programs/fellows/.) The 21 winners span a broad range of fields, including anthropology, biology, genetics, neuroscience, physics, playwriting, poetry, property law and sociology — and, for the first time, chemical engineering. A couple of previous winners do have doctorates in chemical engineering but don’t work as chemical engineers: Melody Schwartz (2012 winner), who’s a bioengineer, and Linda Griffith (2006), who’s a biotechnologist.

The chemical engineer honored is Paul Dauenhauer, a professor in the Chemical Engineering & Materials Science Department of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The MacArthur Foundation cited him for “developing new technologies for converting renewable, organic materials into chemicals used in products such as plastics, rubber and detergents.”

Dauenhauer has devised methods for using substances such as wood and crop waste to produce p-xylene and isoprene that are said to boast quality and production costs comparable to fossil-fuel-based versions. He also has developed a new class of surfactants from sugar and fatty acids that suits myriad cleaning-product formulations and offers better biodegradability than petrochemical-derived alternatives as well as novel and desirable properties.

Here’s what Prof. Dauenhauer told me:

“... It is wonderful to see external recognition that creativity plays a key role in inventing and designing new technology, particularly chemical processes that address issues of sustainability. Chemical engineering is a core research area in using materials and energy sustainably without long-term impacts on the environment including the oceans, the air and land. Our focus has been on making both renewable materials such as plastics, rubbers and detergents but also carbon-free fuels that can be manufactured from wind and solar power. These new processes and associated materials can allow a continuing benefit and high quality of life but limit or negate the negative impacts on the world around us. The MacArthur Fellowship is a validation that these areas of research are critical to society, and we aim to use this support to pursue some of the most high risk and high reward intellectual endeavors.”

As he notes, the award testifies to the increasing importance now placed on sustainability in chemicals manufacturing. If you haven’t already, check out the article from our September issue “The Future is Circular." It delves into the status of the chemical industry’s transition from a “take-make-waste” mindset to one focused on renewable feedstocks and energy and re-use of end-of-life material.

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected]
About the Author

Mark Rosenzweig | Former Editor-in-Chief

Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's former editor-in-chief. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' magazine Chemical Engineering Progress. Before that, he held a variety of roles, including European editor and managing editor, at Chemical Engineering. He has received a prestigious Neal award from American Business Media. He earned a degree in chemical engineering from The Cooper Union. His collection of typewriters now exceeds 100, and he has driven a 1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk for more than 40 years.

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