Winter 2021

Turning plants into everyday products

The U of M’s Paul Dauenhauer has discovered how to use renewable resources to make plastic bottles, car tires, soaps, and more

When Paul Dauenhauer walks through the woods, he thinks about possibilities. How could we use tree branches, leaves, and grasses to produce chemicals that make the things we use every day? How can we do it in a way that’s financially feasible? And how can such technology transform the state’s economy?

Those are the questions Dauenhauer, a chemical engineer, has been asking in his work as the Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professor in the College of Science and Engineering—work that has captured the attention not only of his peers, but also of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Dauenhauer recently was selected as one of 21 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, a group of creative thinkers and doers who push the boundaries of their chosen fields.

 “Clothing, shoes, furniture, cell phones, bandages, and tires are derived from carbon made from natural gas and petroleum. In 100 years, we’re still going to need those products. But what can we do to make these in a way that’s sustainable?” he asks. “We want to create an entirely new industry around products made from renewable resources.”

Chemistry meets the marketplace

Dauenhauer grew up surrounded by an industry built from trees—papermaking. Most of the people in his hometown, Wisconsin Rapids, worked for central Wisconsin’s paper mills or businesses that supported them. While studying chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, he started thinking about goods other than paper that could be derived from wood fiber.

When asked what his mentor, Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt, who passed away last March, would say knowing one of his former students won a MacArthur Fellowship, Dauenhauer says: “He would encourage me to keep going, but don’t get comfortable.”
Richard Anderson Photography

During an internship at Cargill Inc., he learned about the processes used to extract chemicals from corn and soybeans. Later, as a research engineer for the Dow Chemical Company, he saw how Dow determined which technologies made financial sense to pursue. “That’s where I saw the relationship between chemistry and engineering and business,” he says.

In 2004, Dauenhauer came to the University of Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering under Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt. Schmidt was a strong advocate of using Minnesota’s abundance of biomass—grass, trees, leaves, dried corn stalks—as a substitute for petroleum. “He was excited about transforming the world from natural gas and petroleum to renewables, and he played a key role in getting me excited about these ideas,” Dauenhauer says.

With Schmidt’s encouragement, Dauenhauer began exploring how to extract carbon-containing glucose from plants to make biodegradable chemicals that are the building blocks for plastics and other materials.

Since joining the U of M faculty in 2014, Dauenhauer and his group have worked on a number of projects, including:

  • Converting glucose from biomass into paraxylene, the chemical base for polyester, which is used in plastics, clothing, auto parts, and more.
  • Turning glucose into isoprene, which can be used to make rubber for car tires.
  • Using glucose as a basis for oleo-furan surfactant, a key component in detergents.

Risk vs. reward

The path to genius

Paul Dauenhauer credits Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt, his doctoral advisor, for encouraging him to dream big. “When you’re starting out, you don’t know what’s possible,” Dauenhauer says. “It helps to have someone at a senior level say, ‘Let’s go try it.’”

He says the Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professorship made it possible for him to follow his mentor’s advice. “Normally, we get government money and very specific, focused grants. An endowed professorship allows us to explore ideas we otherwise couldn’t.”

Dauenhauer says having that freedom led to his receiving a 2020 MacArthur fellowship or “genius grant.” He says the five-year MacArthur grant will help him pursue even more possibilities. “We have a backlog of secret technologies, and this will help push them along even faster.”

The challenge, however, is to make these chemicals in a way that’s economically feasible. “These have to be a very low-risk investment in terms of the technology and the market for them,” he says. “No one wants to pay 10 times more for the products they use right now.”

Dauenhauer says oleo-furan surfactant could be incorporated into consumer products within a year or two. It can be fine-tuned to make soaps that produce varying amounts of foam and that work in hot, cold, soft, or hard water. Sironix Renewables, a U of M start-up, has been working with several companies that want to use it in their cleaning agents.

The bio-based surfactant can be made in smaller amounts and sold at a higher price, but commodities like plastic and rubber have a longer development process and must be manufactured on a large scale.  Dauenhauer’s group is working with several large companies to learn more about how to make these technologies pay off. He hopes to see a demonstration plant built in Minnesota to test them within the next five years.

Dauenhauer predicts biomass technology will follow the trajectory of renewable solar and wind energy. “Solar and wind took off once we saw that large-scale investment was economically viable. Once there’s momentum and we get a few demonstration facilities built, this too will take off,” he says. “We have the ability to completely remake the chemical industry in Minnesota.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.

Learn more about the Dauenhauer Research Group and make a gift to support its work.