As a materials science and engineering undergraduate in China, Li Shuai learned about the process of using biomass as a reinforcement material for biodegradable composites production. The concept that natural products like corn stover or wheat stalks could be developed into biodegradable materials amazed him.
Shuai decided that was the career path he wanted, and the revelation kicked off a wending path from academia to industry and back to academia across three continents. Last fall, Shuai arrived at Virginia Tech as a new assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Although several bio-based products, such as bioethanol and polylactate, have been commercialized, there’s still a need to find more cost-effective ways of converting biomass, especially lignocellulosic biomass, into other fuels and chemicals.
"We have limited reserves of fossil fuels, especially crude oil, and they are non-renewable," Shuai said. "Vehicles can be powered by electricity, but our daily lives are fueled by a physical material like fossil fuels. The best alternative is carbon-based renewable biomass."
There are two methods to converting biomass into products. One is biological fermentation, but the other, where Shuai specializes, uses chemical pathways. These reactions require catalysts, and Shuai’s research looks at creating novel monomers from renewable biomass, which can then be synthesized into polymers.
"Through these chemical processes, you can get thousands of types of products from biomass," Shuai said. "You may not synthesize the exact same chemicals as those derived from petroleum, but you can synthesize something with very similar properties which can be used to replace them."
When Shuai joined Virginia Tech, his colleague Kevin Edgar mentioned MII to him. Edgar is a Professor of Biomaterials and Bioprocessing in the Department of Sustainble Biomaterials and a core faculty member of MII.
Although Shuai doesn’t work directly with polymers, Edgar explained that joining MII would grant access to an expanded network of faculty members working on polymeric materials.
"This is a great opportunity to start collaborations," Shuai said. "I hope to find colleagues who can help me with the synthesis of polymers, catalysis, and process simulation. I’d give them my novel chemicals, maybe ones we’ve never seen before, and they can form novel polymers."