Tu receives grant from USDA-NIFA to to develop smart materials from renewable biomass



Maobing Tu, associate professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore the use of nanocrystalline cellulose from forest biomass to create piezoelectric materials. The project, titled “Nanocrystalline Cellulose Based Piezoelectric Materials For Energy Sustainability,” is expected to provide a new class of piezoelectric materials, which are critical to high tech devices. Tu is collaborating with Zhongyang Cheng, a professor in the Materials Engineering program, on the project.   


Piezoelectric materials generate electric current when mechanically stressed, and widely used in sensors, actuators, and transducers.  According to Tu, who recently received a CAREER grant from the NSF for his work with bioenergy, they are also crucial for the development of green energy. The materials currently used are either lead-based ceramics, which pose environmental concerns, or polymers. Tu says that nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), processed through hydrolysis from woody biomass, has the potential to be modified into a new category of piezoelectric materials.


The project uses the NCCs to develop two types of piezoelectric materials: NCC-based composites, and NCC nano-brushes, in which NCCs will be assembled in a brush-like array configuration. The composites will be mainly used in the development of sensors, actuators, and transducers, while the NCC nano-brushes are intended for the development of energy harvest devices.


“It is our vision that agriculture and forestry are not only sources for food and fiber, but also sources for engineering materials,” said Tu. “This project has the potential to revive forest industry by transforming a significant portion of the pulp and paper industry to the development of engineering materials and add high value to forest biomass.”


Lu receives Early Career Ecologist Award

Zhang receives NSF grant


Yaoqi Zhang, professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, and Henry Kinnucan, professor in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, have been awarded $482,000 to model the interactions of natural and human systems on the Mongolian Plateau as part of a 5-year, $1.4 million interdisciplinary grant from the National Science Foundation. The project, “Ecosystems and Societies: Divergent Trajectories and Coevolution,” will examine the connection between natural and human systems through the lens of land use and land cover changes driven by climate and socio-economic forces.  The project will provide information vital to understanding vulnerabilities and possible adaptation strategies for large areas where dramatic changes of climate and socio-economic systems are taking place.


This project was funded as part of the NSF’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program, which promotes collaborative research across diverse disciplines, particularly between social scientists and natural scientists.


Dr. Zhang will lead the socio-economic and human system part of the study in collaboration with Dr. Jiquan Chen from University of Toledo, who will lead the ecological and natural system part of the study. The project team hypothesizes that while climate change has created significant pressure on ecosystems and societies in the plateau, the human elements such as population growth, urbanization, and technology have also had a significant effect on the interaction between human and natural systems.


Dr.  Zhang is professor of forest economics and policy at the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University. He received his Ph.D. from University of Helsinki in 2001.  He has been working on land use/cover change, demand and supply of ecosystem services from forests, economic reforms, private and family forestry and published close to 100 journal articles and book chapters.  He teaches forest economics and ecological economics.

Steury receives grant for Alabama black bear research



Todd Steury, Associate Professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has received an $85,287 grant from the State of Alabama for his project, “Estimated population size of black bears in Alabama.” The project will use hair snares to survey for black bears in and around Mobile County in the south and the Little River National Preserve in northeast Alabama.


According to Steury, black bears in Alabama belong to two subspecies, the eastern black bear and Florida black bear. There is a long-standing but small population of Florida black bears in southern Alabama near Mobile, and reports of new sightings of eastern black bears previously wiped out from northeastern Alabama. This project aims to find out just how many bears exist in the Mobile population through DNA analysis. This analysis could also help them learn other things about these southern Alabama bears – whether there is significant inbreeding, for example. They also hope to find out for certain whether bears have re-populated the northeastern corner of the state, or the sightings have been from a transient population.


The hair snares snag bits of hair and along with it, DNA, as the bears head toward Caven’s Hiawatha Valley Predator Bait and jam at a bait station. These snares will be laid out at random points within a sampling grid with 8 km square cells, based on the average home range of male black bears. Because bears roam widely in the fall, preparing for winter hibernation, the researchers hope to come close to snagging DNA the entire male black bear populations in the two survey areas.


“Biodiversity loss is one of the greatest current threats to the environment,” says Steury, “and also has varied consequences for human well-being.” Large carnivores like black bears are particularly important because of the many biological, political, social, and economic roles they can play. For instance, because they are larger they can often be more sensitive to habitat loss and can serve as a warning sign for habitat threats to other species. Their loss can often mean cascading effects through the ecosystem, and protecting them can also protect smaller species. They are also quick to catch public interest.


“Knowing exactly how many individual black bears exist in the core of population is critical to understanding how great the risk of elimination is in that population and how to manage that risk,” Steury says. “In addition, knowing how many individual black bears exist in northeast Alabama, and whether they are settled in the area or transient will help to determine if bears have repatriated that portion of the state. This will be crucial for planning how to manage bears in northeast Alabama.”


Tian awarded grant from NSF to study wildfire and climate variability


Hanqin Tian, Solon and Martha Dixon Professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and Director of the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research, has been awarded $455,984 to study wildfire and climate variability as part of a 4-year, $2.5 million collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the USDA Joint Program on Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction using Earth System Models. The project, “Wildfires and regional climate variability – Mechanisms, modeling, and prediction,” will seek to improve understanding and modeling capability of the two-way interaction between regional climate variability and wildfire. The other collaborating institutions are Georgia Institute of Technology, the US Forest Service, and the Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.


Understanding regional climate variability on a decade-level scale is important for developing adaptation strategies. Wildfire is an important but imperfectly understood factor in regions where it is prevalent. According to Tian, previous studies have only looked at the impact of climate on fire, or of fire on climate – not the cycle of interactions that researchers hypothesize.


Tian’s role in the project will be the development of a new open-source model, called Region-specific Fire Model with Ecosystem Feedbacks (RFMEF). This model will work within the Community Earth System Model (CESM1) to broaden the scope of understanding of the dynamics that work to influence regional climate. In turn, the data generated by the RFMEF model will be valuable to policy experts and scientists for both research and policy analysis in these regions.

Forestry doctoral student places 2nd in IGERT Trainee poster competition


Gifty Acquah, doctoral student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, placed 2nd out of 30 in a poster competition for IGERT Trainees at a Workshop on Energy, Transportation, and Water Infrastructure at Iowa State University. Acquah is a trainee with the Auburn IGERT project “Integrated Biorefining for Sustainable Production of Fuels and Chemicals,” headed by Mario Eden, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Acquah’s advisor Brian Via, assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and director of the Forest Products Development Center, is also affiliated with this IGERT project.


“I’m very pleased that Gifty’s poster was recognized as one of the best among a field of NSF-funded graduate students.  This is another fine recognition of the strength of Auburn’s bioenergy team,” said James Shepard, Dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.


IGERT Traineeships are highly competitive, offering funding and mentorship to doctoral students working in research areas within the scope of the university’s grant. Acquah received travel funding from both Auburn’s IGERT program and the Iowa IGERT to attend the workshop.


Auburn’s IGERT project focuses on all aspects of biorefining “from stump to pump,” and brings together expertise from all corners of the university. “It is completely interdisciplinary,” says Acquah. “We have people from chemical engineering, biosystems [engineering], forestry, rural sociology, business.”


Her own part of the puzzle involves biomass characterization. Biomass is heterogeneous, she says, so a refiner would need to know what they have on their hands before they could process it. The current lab process for determining the chemical properties of a biomass sample is time consuming and laborious. However, using a piece of equipment called a spectrometer, she hopes to develop a quick screening process that would help determine the best use of the biomass based on its properties.


“So when biomass comes in, we would like to say ‘this one has a high level of cellulose; maybe it would be better to use it for ethanol production. One has a lot of lignin, so it would be best for adhesives.”


The complete wet chemistry process to characterize one sample takes about 12 hours, she says. Her task is to do the lab work on a variety of biomass samples, then take a reading on the sample with near infrared spectroscopy and develop models to correlate the two. That way a refiner would have a way to quickly allocate a feedstock to the process that would best suit its composition.


Acquah’s prize winning poster is entitled “Rapid prediction of the thermochemical properties of forest fuels using near infrared spectroscopy.”

Forest Health Cooperative


Hilary Rizk Receives Undergraduate Research fellowship

\"\"Wildlife sciences junior Hilary Rizk has been named an Undergraduate Research Fellow for fall 2013. The Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (URFP) provides opportunities for qualified students from any major to conduct mentored research with Auburn University faculty. Rizk will work with biological sciences professor Geoffrey Hill to investigate a deadly bacterial pathogen called Mycoplasma gallisepticum in house finches. M.g., as it is called, jumped to the species from chickens, and causes conjunctivitis-like symptoms in the finches and is often fatal.

The project aims to determine the reliability of two methods of testing the disease that are currently in use but without any validated evidence of accuracy. Currently there are three testing methods, one of which is known to be accurate – but it is also fatal. That method tests tracheal tissue removed from dead birds for DNA from the pathogen.

A throat swab has been proven to effectively screen chickens, so Rizk says that people commonly use that test with finches as a non-fatal method. However, its accuracy has never been conclusively determined with finches. Likewise, screening a blood sample for antibodies. Rizk’s task will be to learn to perform all three tests, and compare results of the two non-fatal tests against the tracheal sample in a random sample of finches collected on campus.

Rizk was able to develop the project with Dr. Hill’s guidance in part because she was already working in his lab. She says that as a freshman, she knew she wanted to work with birds and sought him out to ask for the opportunity to learn more. She has been working in Dr. Hill’s lab since then, and she now is learning the testing procedures she will use during her research fellowship from one of his graduate students.

Rizk is one of only two students to receive the semester-long fellowship. As part of the reporting requirements for the award, she will present her research at Research Week 2014 and submit an article to the Auburn University Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship.

Forestry graduate student receives grant for Iceland travel

Auburn University student Matthew Ricker was one of 6 doctoral students in the United States to receive a grant from the Soil Science Society of America to attend the Soil Carbon Sequestration conference in Reykjavik, Iceland May 26-29, 2013.

Ricker, a PhD student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been studying forest biogeochemistry in Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina. Soil carbon storage is one of the areas of focus for Ricker’s research, which he says is an important topic for scientists interested in climate change and global carbon cycles. This is primarily because soil is one of the largest reservoirs of terrestrial carbon on Earth.

Ricker said, “This travel opportunity will provide me with valuable global research perspectives on soil carbon issues and teach me new techniques that I can utilize in the future as important soil functions, such as climate change mitigation and ecosystem services, become more widely valued in the United States.”

In addition to the grant to travel to Iceland for the conference, he was selected to receive additional funds to attend a hands-on workshop titled \”Land-use practice and sustainable use of soil” after the conference.

Tu receives National Science Foundation CAREER award to study biofuels

\"MaobingMaobing Tu, an assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has received a $401, 155 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his research in biofuels and bioenergy.

The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards, honoring junior faculty who excel in research and teaching, and integrating these roles at their institutions.

“Butanol is one of the promising advanced biofuels being pursued by industry for the next generation of alternative fuels,” said Tu. “However, cost-effective production of butanol from lignocellulosic biomass is still challenging. In particular, hydrolysate inhibition limits butanol fermentation efficiency.”

Butanol has several advantages over ethanol, including a higher energy content that is closer to gasoline. Unlike ethanol, butanol can be used in cars directly, without mixing or altering the vehicle. In addition, because ethanol can absorb water it rusts pipes, making transportation a challenge. Both biofuels can be derived from the same biomass materials, but butanol is more difficult to produce. This is due in part to sensitivity of microorganisms to toxic compounds generated in biomass pretreatment, which can slow down and/or stop the fermentation process completely.

The five-year project, “Carbonyl Inhibition of Butanol Production from Biomass Hydrolysates by Clostridium acetobutylicum,” promises to improve efficiency in the biorefining process for butanol production from forest and agricultural biomass. “This will be a significant step toward making butanol production economically viable,” said Tu.

The work will also be helpful in the design and manufacturing of machines used to produce butanol, and is expected to advance understanding of the chemical processes involved in biomass processing. A successful outcome for this project will significantly promote biofuels production, which has further positive implications for national energy security and independence.

An important component of CAREER awards is the integration of teaching the next generation of scientists. Tu’s project includes plans to hire 20 undergraduate researchers from Auburn University and Tuskegee University, with special effort to recruit a diverse cohort of students.

“Dr. Tu\’s research will help solve technological barriers to producing cellulose-based liquid fuels that we can use to offset fossil fuels,” said Dean James Shepard. “We are very pleased that the value of his work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation.”

Tu joined the Auburn faculty in 2008. He earned his doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 2007. He is the first CAREER award recipient from the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

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