Reactions – Paul Dauenhauer

Paul J. Dauenhauer is in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he works on high temperature chemistries of biopolymer/biomass conversion to fuel and chemical feedstocks.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Like many people on this blog, chemistry classes in high school were an enlightening and engaging experience. The synthesis and study of chemicals has a creative aspect that is much like playing with childhood toys such as Legos. At the same time the study of chemical processes is quantitative, and solving the mysteries of how chemical bonds break and form is similar to putting together the clues of a Sherlock Holmes story. So I guess my interest in chemistry comes partly from my childhood interests of creative toys and great novels.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

If I was capable, I would become a professional musician. My personal hobbies are playing the trombone and banjo, and it is interesting to think about a career spent performing or producing new and original music.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

We are currently working on understanding the high temperature (>400 °C) thermolysis chemistry of biopolymers such as cellulose and lignin. These are the largest volume polymers on the planet, and they can be thermally deconstructed through gasification or pyrolysis to fuel precursor mixtures that will lead to renewable biofuels. Our specific work focuses on understanding the different glycosidic cleavage pathways of cellulose as it thermally decomposes to an array of anhydrosugars, furans, and volatile oxygenates such as glycolaldehyde. We have recently discovered some of the key reaction mechanisms of furan formation which we hope will lead to a complete kinetic description of cellulose pyrolysis.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I would very much enjoy having dinner with President Jimmy Carter. In retrospect, his energy policies focusing on renewable energy and efficiency seem visionary! When reading his energy proposals or watching his speeches from the White House (on YouTube), he was advocating many of the policies and technologies that are currently adopted by major corporations. At the time of his presidency, he had the courage to push America toward the future. I would be interested to hear his opinions on how we could continue to improve our energy economy in a way that is sustainable for America and the World.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

This past summer, I worked with a graduate student to characterize the carbohydrate dimers in aerosols produced from pyrolysis of cellulose. It turns out that cellulose liquefies at high temperature and spontaneously ejects little droplets of liquid by a mechanism called ‘reactive boiling ejection’. We sampled the particles and determined their composition to demonstrate that they come directly from molten cellulose as opposed to an alternative nucleation/condensation mechanism.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

I would select, “Dave Brubeck Trio & Gerry Mulligan, Live at the Berlin Philharmonie.” This live concert is probably the best performance of Dave Brubeck, and the solos by both Mulligan have amazing energy. The crowd is also really involved in the show which produces an engaging musical experience. I would also select Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander book series. While this is technically a 21- part nautical adventure series, it is one continuous story that is sufficiently complex that it could be read multiple times, which would be useful if I only had one book. Additionally, the series has so much information about ships, hulls, sails, etc. that I could probably use it to escape the island!

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I would like to hear from Professor James Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin Madison. His scientific presentations have a unique sense of humor, and I’m sure his blog answers would be equally entertaining.