Extraordinary Purpose: Supporting Innovative Research

lignin research

Last year, Dr. Hasan Jameel, Professor of Forest Biomaterials, was named the Jordan Family Distinguished Professor for Natural Resources Innovation. This prestigious professorship recognizes outstanding faculty members in the College of Natural Resources and helps them build innovative research programs around emerging issues in natural resources that impact the economy, quality of life and environmental sustainability. As part of the named professorship, the faculty member receives a stipend, research support, graduate fellowships and undergraduate research awards for four years.

“The Jordan Professorship will enable us to link the fundamental knowledge about lignin to various new applications to directly benefit commercialization and help improve the forest products industry’s profitability and overall environmental sustainability,” Dr. Jameel said. “Lignin from bio-refinery processes have low reactivity and high quantities of impurities, which limits end use applications. Different cost-effective methods for upgrading the lignin were proposed in this research to allow for the development of a profitable bio-refinery. The outcome of this research will improve viability of the forest products industry, which is critical for maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem, to preserving rural U.S. jobs and decreasing our dependency on nonrenewable resources.”

To support his research on lignin from the biorefinery processes, the Jordan Professorship is funding two graduate fellowships with Dr. Jameel. These two Ph.D. students, with backgrounds in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry, and leading the way on this cutting-edge research. Meet Matt Kollman and Robert Hardwicke Narron and discover why graduate fellowships are essential to innovative research.

Kollman, who received an M.S. Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Georgia Tech in 2013 with a research focus on Atmospheric Chemistry, and a dual B.S. in Paper Science and Engineering and Chemical Engineering from NC State, is excited to be back at his alma mater delving deeper into the area of Forest Biomaterials. Narron, fell in love with NC State and never really left. He holds a B.S. in Chemistry.

Why is your research important?

  • Matt Kollman (MK): Biorefining is the process of converting biomass, like trees and grasses, into electricity, chemicals and materials to reduce our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels, like oil. Up to 30 percent of biomass is composed of a class of polymers known as lignin. In the current techno-economic models, lignin is treated as a byproduct of the bio-refinery process and burned as a fuel. Under this assumption, biorefineries are not economically feasible; lignin must be used to create value added products. Many barriers exist for lignin to become a viable feedstock in the production of chemicals. The goal of our research is to overcome those barriers.
  • Robert Hardwicke Narron (RN): We are developing sustainable processes for producing the fuels, materials and chemicals demanded by mankind from lignocellulosic biomasses (which are distinctly non-petroleum in origin).

What are the real-world impacts of your research?

  • MK: As our population grows, sustainable utilization of our natural resources becomes increasingly important.  Continuing to rely solely on fossil fuels to meet the needs of our future population is not a viable solution. For the United States to maintain its security as global demand for petroleum causes international tension, we need to use locally sourced, renewable resources to produce energy, chemicals and materials. Our research is making that a reality.
  • RN: Lignin, the biomolecule attributed to giving wood its strength, is still not well understood and is therefore hard to make money from using. We want to advance knowledge in lignin’s properties to increase its industrial utilization. We are active players in the movement away from petroleum dependence.

What do you enjoy most about working with Dr. Jameel?

  • MK: Dr. Jameel encourages his students to think and work independently, which are very important skills for a Ph.D. level researcher to master. At the same time, he is a caring, involved personal and professional mentor.
  • RN: His passion for this material oozes out of him and is highly infectious to those nearby.

What do you hope to do after completing your Ph.D. program?

  • MK: I hope to work as an R&D scientist or engineer in a national lab or private research institute.  Eventually, I would like to gain experience in forming public policy related to science and technology.

What is your experience like as a College of Natural Resources Ph.D. student?

  • MK: This is only my first semester, but so far the experience is enjoyable. Most noticeable is how everyone here is extremely helpful and will stop what they are doing to advise or assist me. This has really helped my development and I hope I can continue this tradition as a senior student.

Why would you recommend your program to other students?

  • MK: Forest Biomaterials research relies on the principles of many disciplines, so it appeals to scientists and engineers of many backgrounds. The research is very applied, so it also appeals to those who want to make a meaningful impact with their work.
  • RN: We are performing the lab-scale work that is directly translating into real-world sustainability solutions, both academically and industrially.

Any advice for future Ph.D. students?

  • MK: Do not conduct your research in a bubble; think about why you are doing a particular experiment, how your work relates to that of another group or college, and never stop asking questions of your advisor, other students, and professors.

Anything else you would like to say about your research, your experiences or the College of Natural Resources?

  • MK: Even though I’ve been in this program a semester, I’ve learned so much. I’m looking forward to diving full on into my research and excited to see what the next few years brings.