Fueling the Future

Ag Research Award Winner Creates New Technology from Unlikely Sources

By Natalie van Hoose - Published November 6, 2015

Nathan MosierNathan Mosier, Indiana Soybean Alliance Soybean Utilization Endowed Chair (Photo by Vince Walter)

For Nathan Mosier, nothing is wasted.

Where others see potato peels, this professor of agricultural and biological engineering sees a means of generating electricity. To him, the stover left after a corn harvest is the stuff that could power planes. He envisions water bottles made from plant matter and carpets that biodegrade rather than clog landfills.

He uses conversations with colleagues from other disciplines to gain insights into his own field and transformed an equation-laden engineering course into the testing grounds where students design their own food products. A jam session on the guitar is not just blowing off steam—it fires up creative juices to use back in his lab.

Whether it's a field of switchgrass or a freshman struggling with thermodynamics, Mosier looks for and sees potential.

"Nothing is single use," he says. It's a premise he applies to his teaching, interactions with industry, and research, which focuses on developing new ways to convert agricultural materials into fuels, chemicals or other products traditionally made from petroleum and natural gas.

"In every project, I'm thinking ahead to how we might translate the understanding we gain from advances in fundamental science into an application for some issue or problem. My research is always use-inspired," he says.

Teamwork Generates Better Biofuels

Mosier is this year's recipient of the Agricultural Research Award, given to a faculty member in the College of Agriculture who has achieved a level of excellence in research and made significant contributions to agriculture, natural resources and quality of life for Indiana citizens.

He earned his master's and doctoral degrees from Purdue's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and joined the faculty in 2003. The impetus to stick around, he says, stemmed from great colleagues and the ease of working across colleges and disciplines.

"All the really interesting, challenging problems we need to solve as a society are ones that people from varying backgrounds need to address."

He points to Purdue's Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, or C3Bio, as an example of a team that unites people of fields who don't often collaborate on projects.

One of the main challenges Mosier and the center tackle is how to efficiently free sugars from cellulose to produce biofuels. The foundation of the plant cell wall, cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on the planet. But the rigidity it confers to plants and wood make it a difficult material to break down.

In addition to writing a renowned review study of pretreatment technologies, Mosier researches ways to create catalysts that mimic those in the rumen of cows and guts of termites, some of the few organisms that can digest cellulose.

Machine Turns Scraps into Electricity

Perhaps the best example of his ability to integrate multiple aspects of science and engineering into a novel technology is the van-sized portable generator he and colleagues at Purdue's Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering developed to convert trash into power.

The machine converts food waste into ethanol and heats paper, plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard under low-oxygen conditions, producing a flammable gas. It can run on either of these fuels, diesel or a combination and can process a ton of waste a day to produce enough electricity to power about 2-3 houses. The U.S. Army tested a prototype in Iraq for several months.

"It solved two problems for them," Mosier says. "They have to do something with the waste they're generating, and it's often difficult to supply power or energy to remote locations. We figured out a way to do both at the same time."

In class, he uses the machine to illustrate the variety of engineering involved—mechanical, biological and chemical—as well as the need to interact and collaborate with others.

"Dr. Mosier is an exceptional scholar, mentor and researcher who has brought significant recognition to Purdue through the national and international impacts of his research and by working with industry in Indiana," said Bernie Engel, head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "His knowledge and contributions to the field of renewable bioenergy are enhanced by his passion for motivating students to become the best researchers they can be."