Engineering Dean Dr. Mark Zappi talks about his work in biofuels and bioprocessing, and how he is assembling a top-notch team to push UL to the forefront in the hottest area in fuels.

To read the first and second parts of this interview, start here.

You have over $30 million in grants, a lot of those dealing with one of the most exciting and important areas of research anywhere on the globe.

Alternative energy... sooner or later, petroleum is going to run out. Sitting in an oil town, that's a bold statement to make, but sooner or later it's going to cost itself out, or it's going to run out. Is it a hundred years, three hundred years, a thousand years, I don't know. But due to environmental impacts, and costs, and accessibility, it's finite, no ifs ands or buts. Society is sitting on a potential threat.

We're becoming more and more energy dependent, as a global society. Economic development and maintaing the current level of economic activity, is totally tied to energy. Most of our conflicts around the globe are probably more about energy than anything else. You can tell the growth of the economy of a country by looking at how much fuel they use, it will tell you how much they're growing economically. China was not even one of the top ten users of petroleum ten years ago, and right now they're second to the United States. If you look at their economic picture, it tracks the fuel use. India is right up there, too. So I would say that energy is very important.

My background is in alternative energy, primarily bio-based systems. So when I came here I found Louisiana uniquely positioned, it was a golden opportunity to do something great in the state. Working with our friends in the Agriculture Department at LSU, working with some of the other universities, but taking the lead in bioprocessing, the science and engineering behind the processing. That's a vision and a goal we have for UL is that we're going to become one of the premier insititutions on the handling and processing of these materials.

Talk about the interesting steps you've taken in that direction, and the exciting things you've started.

Well first of all, Dr. Authément has been very gracious and supportive, as well as [VP of Research] Bob Stewart and [Academic VP] Steve Landry. They've made a significant investment in faculty and resources, and opened up some doors, and we're taking them and marching ahead. So the facilities we're putting together are world-class, the faculty we're organizing is world-class, we have contacts we're expanding on, we're reachign out and working well with the other people in the state. It won't take nearly as long as it took at Mississippi State, because we know how to do it better now. It won't be long, we're going to end up being a regional player in this game.

You said that Louisiana is uniquely poised for this.

Well, we're right in the middle of the nation's biggest energy and chemical productions area, Louisiana is one of the leading producers in tonnage per year of biomass. We're diverse, yes, and that diversity could be a benefit. We're also the gateway to South America. We're known already as an energy capital. We sitt on some the largest transportation conduits for chemicals, multiple conduits between pipeline, rail, road, river. Geographically, we have a tremendous advantage over most states, meaning that no matter what they do, they can't move the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico, and they can't easily reproduce the billions and billions of dollars investment in place already in production. That's assets that very few people can claim, that's assets we haven't been using. That's assets I think we are starting to use.

Just as you arrived, we have had a large number of faculty retiring. Talk about some of the hires you've made.

When I arrived I estimated that about half of our faculty would be retiring in five years, and that seems to be accurate. It isn't necessarily a good thing that faculty are retiring, but it does mean that there is an opportunity. The signature of an institution, the foundation, are its faculty. As a Dean, one of the biggest things you can do is work with the administration and the department heads and the faculty in the hiring of new faculty. So that's an opportunity for the Dean and the department heads and the upper administration to really architect a tremendous College.

Architect, or engineer?

Design.

Talk about some of the exciting hires you've made.

We have a core of a lot of young faculty who've come in, faculty that the Stanfords and the Georgia Techs would be thrilled to have. Working with the upper administration we were able to put together hiring packages that were world-class. On the more senior side, we've hired a chem engineering professor, Dr. Rakesh Bajpay who is internationally know in bioprocessing, Dr. Don Hayes, internationally known on coastal protection.

We've also-- not just hiring, but through the kind donations of our supporters and alumni-- offered professorships and chairs to faculty who were here already. One of our big efforts was to improve our rewards to our good faculty that we already had, and to make smart hires. Dr. Carolina Cruz who is the director of LITE was a tremendous hire. And we've been real advocates of hires in other Colleges, because as I said, the time has come to break those barriers down. I'm just as excited about a good hire in microbiology or in chemistry or in business marketing, as I am in one of our faculty, because it's all a team.

Tell us about the resources you found already in place here at UL.

Our College has tremendous resources, enough for an entire interview itself.
But for somebody in my area, we have one of the best Biology Departments in the country. We have a top-notch applied Chemistry group, tremendous Physics. Of course, we have great Computer Sciences and CACS, what Dr. Bayoumi has done has been real impressive. Then we have the folks out there, Ramesh's [Assistant VP for Research Dr. Ramesh Kolluru] group out at CBIT, Carolina Cruz at LITE... I mean, the framework was already here, all it took was for Engineering to step up, which we have, and to become more of a major player, we we have now.

Another asset we have is the activity around campus and across the region. When I was at Mississippi State I loved the school, but when I drove a mile off of campus I was in cow pastures. Here, I drive 20 or 30 miles from campus in any direction, we've got technology everywhere. I mean, look how innovative local technology has been, Fiber To The Home-- and just the existence of LUS, what an asset to the community-- to wind farming, to advanced oil field work, to computational, it's just an exciting place for an engineer to be. It's all about technology.

And then in the middle of the technology, look what cultural opportunities we have. Lafayette's a helluva town.

We've talked about alternate energy, let's talk about specific things you're aiming for.

Well, within my particular area, we're focusing on bioproducts and biofuels. We're looking at making ethanol from Louisiana products and waste products, we're looking at making biodeisel from Louisiana products and waste products. Things like making biodiesel from sewerage sludge, to making methane from waste algae, to biodiesel from algae, ethanol from rice components, to lignocellulose-- whole plant materials-- into ethanol, to lookin at the economic aspects of it, working with business aspects, marketing aspects.

 

What about gasification?

That's another conversion technology. We're working on fermentation, sugar fermentation from novel sugar sources, we're looking at gasification from converting bulk biomass to chemical products. We have an agreement we're going to be signing with a private company to look at how to commercialize some of these gasification technologies.

We've had a tremendous influx of private groups wanting to partner with UL, they're lined up. I probably meet with one or two groups a week.

Louisiana groups?

Primarily Louisiana groups. More companies want to settle in Louisiana, put their manufacturing facilities in our state.

So even though the local community largely doesn't even know you're here, the people in the know across the state and beyond do know you're here.

They know our team is here, yeah.

To read the final part of this 4-part interview, click here.