Professor George Huber energizes a post-oil economy
In the fight to reduce our society’s dependency on fossil fuels and minimize the ravages of climate change, one weapon stands out: biofuel, made from renewable plant material called biomass. UMass Amherst is proud to count among its own George Huber, a leading biofuel researcher who serves as John and Elizabeth Armstrong Professional Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Huber’s specialty is applying chemical catalysis—increasing the rate of a chemical reaction by introducing a catalyst—to convert plant material into fuels and chemicals. More specifically, he says, he’s attempting “to break the chemical and engineering barriers to producing lignocellulosic biofuels.” Lignocellulosic biofuels can be produced from non-edible biomass, such as wood residues (including sawmill and paper mill discards), municipal paper waste, agricultural residues from corn and sugarcane production, and dedicated energy crops (most often tall, woody grasses).
Huber’s timely research could transform the energy economy by converting what had been waste into fuel. Massachusetts alone produces up to 7,000 metric tons of waste a year in the form of deadwood culled by the forestry service to make tree stands healthier and less fire-prone. That might all be used as fuel, along with the roughly 1.3 billion dry tons of cellulosic biomass it is estimated the United States could annually gather or grow—enough to replace four billion barrels of crude oil, or about half of what Americans burn annually. Best of all, it is estimated that biofuel could greatly reduce domestic CO2 emissions.
Sound like water into wine? To Huber, it’s all in a day’s work. “Chemical engineers are taught how to take inexpensive raw material and convert it into something more valuable,” he says. “We do that with petroleum products, with semiconductors, with pharmaceuticals. That’s the whole chemical engineering profession.”
Even George Huber, however, admits that his profession has rarely shown greater potential for fostering universal good than it does in his laboratory and others like it that are trying to more efficiently use our renewable resources.