Distinguished Lecture: “Next-generation Biofuels and Biobased Products from Plants”

Maureen McCann
Professor and Assistant Head of the Department of Biological Sciences
Director of the Energy Center at Discovery Park

Plants filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with very high efficiency, using solar energy to construct sugars and aromatic molecules that are stored in lignocellulosic biomass. A half-billion tons of lignocellulosic biomass is an annually renewable resource of home-grown energy available from U.S. agriculture and forestry. Second-generation biofuels will be derived from lignocellulosic biomass using biological catalysis to use the carbon in plant cell wall polysaccharides for ethanol or other biofuels. However, this scenario is both carbon- and energy-inefficient. The major components of biomass are polysaccharides and lignin, the latter accounting for ca. 25-30% by weight. First, biological conversion routes use only the polysaccharide moiety of the wall, hydrolyzing the polysaccharides to sugars as carbon sources for microbes. Second, the presence of the lignin interferes with the access of hydrolytic enzymes to the polysaccharides, thereby inhibiting their conversion to sugars. Third, the living micro-organisms, required to ferment the sugars to biofuels, utilize some sugars in their own growth and co-produce carbon dioxide at undesirable levels. In contrast, the power of chemical catalysis to transform biomass components to alkanes, aromatics, and other useful molecules is an underexplored area of science that has tremendous potential impact. Restructuring biomass polysaccharides and lignin into energy-rich fuel molecules requires us to achieve a deep understanding of biomass-catalyst interactions, and at the atomic level, to provide a rational basis for design of optimized catalysts and biomass tailored for the end-use of catalytic conversion. The Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) is a DOE-funded Energy Frontier Research Center, which aims to develop transformational technologies to maxim­ize the energy and carbon efficiencies of biofuels production.

Maureen McCann was appointed Director of Purdue’s Energy Center, effective August 1, 2010.  She obtained her undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1987, and then a PhD in Botany at the John Innes Centre, Norwich UK, a government-funded research institute for plant and microbial sciences.  She stayed at the John Innes Centre for a post-doctoral, partly funded by Unilever, and then as a project leader with her own group from 1995, funded by The Royal Society.  In January 2003, she moved to Purdue University as an Associate Professor, and she is currently a Professor and Assistant Head in the Department of Biological Sciences.

The goal of her research is to understand how the molecular machinery of the plant cell wall contributes to cell growth and specialization, and thus to the final stature and form of plants.  Plant cell walls are the source of lignocellulosic biomass, an untapped and sustainable resource for biofuels production with the potential to reduce oil dependence, improve national security, and boost rural economies.  She is also the Director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), an interdisciplinary team of biologists, chemists and chemical engineers in an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science.