Output from the pulp and paper industry was once a fairly straightforward proposition: Trees and fiber crops were processed for use as newsprint, packing materials and other paper products. But thanks to innovations in green chemistry, these same raw materials are now key to much more: They are a valuable source for biofuels, biopower, and are being used to develop biomaterials for clothing, composites and even electronics.
One of the biochemical experts leading this transformation is AAAS Fellow Arthur Ragauskas, currently a professor at the Institute of Paper Science and Technology in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In June, Ragauskas moves to Tennessee, where he has been named University of Tennessee—Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor's Chair for Biorefining.
Ragauskas takes a wide view of bio-fueled innovations. He believes the impact of these plant-based advances on the future will be just as far-reaching as the use of petroleum products is today.
"You'll have people growing 'energy crops.' You'll have collection systems and you'll have processing systems," said Ragauskas. "And then you will just add on additional manufacturing steps to convert the residues either to chemicals or materials—which in some cases will have better performance than a variety of conventional, petroleum-derived materials."
Ragauskas and his team are doing important new research on the green chemistry of biopolymers such as cellulose (the main constituent of the cell walls of green plants) hemicellulose and lignin. His team is looking at a variety of new ways to convert this plant matter into biofuels and new biomaterials and bio-composites.
The benefits of plant-derived fuel and materials include decreased demand for fossil fuels, enhanced energy security, less damage from climate change, and more Earth-friendly, biodegradable products. But challenges remain in that chemical conversion, especially in developing efficient, cost-effective methods to produce the biofuel cellulosic ethanol.
Making ethanol from sugar cane or corn only requires heat and fermentation. But using other biomass, like corn stover or switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol, is more complicated. It requires chemicals and heat, then enzymes, then fermentation to extract usable fuel.
For these ethanol biorefineries to be economically viable, Ragauskas suggests the colocation of pulp mills and biochemical refineries—much like oil and petrochemical companies do now. The same raw materials could be used to make everything from specialty chemicals, to solvents, to food flavorings. (Wood products already are part of consumable household products ranging from artificial vanilla to shredded cheese to toothpaste.)
The strength and versatility of cellulose also is driving development of promising new nanomaterials, such as "cellulosic nanowhiskers," tiny, rod-like fibers that can be added to many products to improve their physical properties.
"It looks like spaghetti," explained Ragauskas, "but, quite literally, you delaminate a fiber to these small elementary fibrils that are all held together. Those are being used in composites. They're being used in films. They're being used in foams. They're being looked at for healthcare applications, surface treatments, all kinds of things."
Ragauskas's perspective on building a more bio-based society goes beyond discoveries in his chemistry lab. During a stint as a Fulbright Fellow in alternative energy at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, Ragauskas said he realized what an important role business has in the future of energy.
"It brought me to people in business, and policy issues on alternative energy," he said. "You really find out that the challenges are much bigger than just the technical challenges.
"Historically, industries that have large capital investments have a long timeline," he continued. "They have a vested interest in not changing things immediately because their investments are so large. So you can have a long-term vision of significant improvements in manufacturing or production. But then you can have short-term spinoffs, making their current processes more efficient. Then as we go down that road, not only will we have efficiency, but new products, new applications, new markets developed."
Ragauskas's outgoing personality seems to lend itself to collaborations. His research colleagues now include bio-technicians, chemical engineers, modeling experts, agronomists and economists.
"I naturally gravitate to multidisciplinary research. I find it more productive, when you can share something with someone over a cup of coffee vs. over the phone," he said.
The son of first generation immigrants to Canada, Ragauskas earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario. He comes from a family where education is highly valued and tries to pass that value along: He is mentor to a steady stream of post docs and likens his role as a coach as well as a teacher for many determined students, whom he says are full of good ideas.
"We have more than enough students who want to come work with us," he noted. "And that's because of this passion and interest they have of trying to make bio-based materials, fuels and chemicals."
Ragauskas also believes that outreach beyond academia is vital to understanding and accepting a completely new way of doing many things—from filling up a car's fuel tank to using cellulose nanomaterials for clothing and electronics.
"Anybody that does science has a kind of moral responsibility to explain to the public why they are doing science and its benefits: 'Here is the value of my research, here are the social problems I will address.' And I also think it's incumbent to explain to the public at a level that they will understand, simply the elegance and the beauty of what you're trying to do, and the long-term impact to humankind," he said.