NSF Awards Colorado State University Professors $800,000 to Model Chemical Makeup of Biofuels, Design Smart Materials

Note to Editors: Photos of Professors David Wang and Xianghong Qian are available with the news release at http://www.newsinfo.colostate.edu/.

The National Science Foundation has granted Career Awards worth $800,000 to two Colorado State University engineering professors who will use computer simulations to study – and potentially improve – the chemical makeup of biofuels and the design of "smart" materials.

Receiving the awards are David Wang, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Xianghong Qian, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Each received a $400,000, five-year grant.

"These faculty and their students are solving problems that affect lives every day," said Sandra Woods, dean of the College of Engineering. "Their research will help us to address the energy crisis or develop new materials."

Wang, who joined Colorado State in 2004, will build computational models to help scientists understand and design smart, nanostructured polymeric materials. These are organic materials that have great applications in nanotechnology, such as nanolithography used to make tiny features on computer chips.

Wang plans to investigate smart surfaces – surfaces that can actively change their properties (e.g., wettability, adhesion, biocompatibility) in response to subtle changes in their environment such as temperature, pressure, light and acidity. Such surfaces have diverse applications in many fields, including surface coating, biosensors and drug delivery.

His research could be used to transform the way scientists design "soft" materials such as polymers, biological membranes and liquid crystals.

In mechanical engineering, Qian will use the NSF grant to build computer models that could improve the yield of chemicals leading to biofuel production.

Conversion yields of glucose to hydroxymethylfurfurl or HMF – a critical intermediate in making hydrocarbon biofuels – are limited. Glucose is the most abundant sugar stored in lignocellulosic biomass. Qian hopes to improve the HMF production by investigating the glucose-to-HMF conversion mechanism, and how solvents such as water and organic solvents affect this reaction.  

She has found that solvent and solvent structure surrounding the sugar molecules play a critical role in glucose conversion to biofuels. Her aim is to find an optimal solvent system that produces high yield of HMF.

Ultimately, her research could help convert biomass to biofuels more efficiently as well as more cost effectively.

Qian joined Colorado State in 2006 from National Renewable Energy Laboratory where she studied biomass conversion to biofuels using thermochemical methods.