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Outstanding Dissertation

May 10, 2016 Charleen Floyd
Kinsella Prize winner demonstrates improved way to process biomass

Amanda Hildebrand, who recently completed her Ph.D. in biological systems engineering, has been awarded the John E. Kinsella Memorial Prize for her outstanding doctoral dissertation on a novel, cost-savings approach to processing cellulosic biomass, a sustainable source of energy.

            Cellulosic biomass—produced from products like straw, sawdust, and cardboard—is an attractive resource for biofuel and various chemicals because it’s inexpensive and abundant, and isn’t made from food crops, such as corn. Cellulosic biomass could reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and drive economic development. But there is one, big problem: Converting the biomass to biofuels is a costly process.

            Using metabolic engineering, kinetic modeling, and fermentation, Hildebrand demonstrated a new method that could consolidate the current, costly steps into a more affordable, efficient process.

            “Amanda’s work could have a significant impact on the commercial viability of cellulose conversion to fuels and chemicals,” said Professor Zhiliang Fan with the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Hildebrand’s major advisor. “Her research represents a pioneering effort to develop a new and fundamentally different platform for fuel and chemical production.”

            Hildebrand completed her dissertation in July 2015 and is now a research scientist with DuPont Industrial Biosciences in Palo Alto, working to develop enzymes and yeast strains for the fuel ethanol industry. Hildebrand came to UC Davis in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from UC Santa Barbara, along with five years of experience in process development for the consumer-goods and biotechnology industries. Her experience as a fermentation engineer shaped her interests in renewable energy and prompted her to pursue a doctoral degree in biological systems engineering.

            “One of the greatest challenges of our time is building a more sustainable future for our planet and its inhabitants.” Hildebrand said. “I’m very grateful for the Kinsella Memorial Prize. Awards such as this serve to highlight these efforts, and are an important tool for fostering awareness and encouraging the continuation of research in renewable energy.”

            The Kinsella Memorial Prize was established in 1994 by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to honor the late John Kinsella, former dean of the college and a professor of food science and technology. Graduate groups can nominate one dissertation each year for the quality and originality of an individual’s work, its multidisciplinary impact, and its importance to the college’s mission. The prize recipient is awarded $3,000.

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