In Focus: Highlights from 2013

Written by Eric Anderson

Highlights from 2013

The Wisconsin Energy Institute prides itself on bringing together leading experts from diverse backgrounds in pursuit of solutions and research that may change our approach to energy. Here is a brief look at just a few of our highlights in 2013.

University of Wisconsin–Madison Welcomes Retired DOW Exec

Bill Banholzer

Bill Banholzer, an industry executive who has spent his entire career translating inventions into products that are both profitable and beneficial to society has joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison with appointments in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and in the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

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Holly Gibbs

Holly Gibbs

On October 22, 2013, Holly Gibbs, assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, was featured in an interview on BBC for their “Shared Planet” special exploring the fragility and niche of wildlife species in a world where land use is regularly changing.

Gibbs research has looked at land use change and its effect on ecosystem services, like carbon storage. In 2013, she published a paper that estimated available croplands with a ‘bottom-up’ approach instead of relying on global-scale estimates. This approach analyzed observations on a finer scale, focusing on expert knowledge at the ground level that takes into account the ecological and social costs of land use conversion. Gibbs found that globally, there is much less additional cropland than previously believed.

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Chris Todd Hittinger

Chris Todd Hittinger

Chris Todd Hittinger, an assistant professor of genetics and a researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), has won a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to study how Saccharomyces yeasts—which are responsible for fermenting sugars into the ethanol found in wine, beer and biofuel—adapt over time to industrial conditions. The project’s findings could help researchers develop new yeast strains that not only produce biofuel efficiently, but also thrive in a bio-refinery environment.

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George Huber and Jim Dumesic

George Huber

Biofuels Digest named University of Wisconsin–Madison professors of chemical and biological engineering, George Huber and Jim Dumesic, to its list of the “Top 100 People in the Bioeconomy, 2013-14.” Each year, the Digest’s more than 34,000 subscribers are invited to nominate the top 100  “transformative people to know in bioenergy or bio-industry.” Digest editors then compile a list of the most outstanding researchers, industry executives, policymakers, and company executives from all over the world.

Huber’s research is dedicated to developing sustainable, economical catalytic technologies for converting biomass into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and useful chemicals.

Dumesic's groundbreaking work on heterogeneous catalysis of biomass, which is funded in part by the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, has led to numerous inventions through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

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John Ralph

GLBRC Plants Research Lead John Ralph poses in front of a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2013, John Ralph, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center Plants Area leader and University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of biochemistry, was honored with the American Chemical Society’s Anselme Payen Award for his ongoing efforts in plant biochemistry. John Ralph is scheduled to receive this award in April 2014.

For decades, John Ralph’s group has been focusing its expertise on one of the most persistent hurdles to a bio-based fuel economy: lignin, an organic polymer in plants that limits the processing of plant biomass into biofuels.

Recently, collaborative research between Ralph’s group and researchers at Michigan State University, Ghent University in Belgium, and INRA in France has a lignin-modified poplar tree that has led to more efficient fermentation of the biomass, resulting in a 20 percent higher ethanol production than from un-pretreated biomass.

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Troy Runge and Rob Anex

Troy Runge and Rob Anex

Starting in January 2013, researchers Troy Runge, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, and Rob Anex, professor of biological systems engineering, began working on a $499, 426 United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant project titled, “Dried distiller grain based polymer dispersions for paper coatings.”

The project, led by Runge, is exploring additional revenue streams that can be generated from the by-products of corn ethanol production. In particular, Runge and Anex will investigate the viability of developing renewable chemical streams from distillers’ dried grains, which are currently used for animal feed. The process works without degrading the product as feed. The researchers will be working with many Wisconsin collaborators on the project, including Didion Milling, Inc.

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