Betting on Waste


UCSB engineering professor Michelle O'Malley receives DOE award to image microbial processes that could lead to advanced biofuels.

Most of the materials that maintain our modern lives — fuels, pharmaceuticals and other commodity chemicals — come from non-renewable sources. Over time the acquisition of these materials becomes more costly as their supplies diminish. A prime example is petroleum, from which we derive fuels that feed our insatiable demand for energy.

To help create a truly renewable alternative to petroleum, Michelle O’Malley, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, has turned to one of the most abundant materials on Earth: the non-food parts of plants — stems, roots, inedible leaves — that would generally be regarded as waste. And with a $2.25 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy, O’Malley’s research group, along with collaborators at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), are poised to advance the knowledge of and technology for advanced biofuels.

“We are extremely grateful to the Department of Energy for making this award, which will fund an ambitious, high-risk/high-reward research collaboration between UC Santa Barbara and PNNL to image microbial processes that are critical for waste-to-fuel production,” O’Malley said. “There is a critical need to develop new methods to manufacture chemicals, fuels and commodity chemicals from renewable resources.”

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