4 Minutes with…Professor George Willis Huber, Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

April 5, 2015 |

huberTell us about your company and its role in the Advanced Bioeconomy.

Our research is to develop new catalytic processes to economically produce liquid fuels and chemicals from biomass. The Huber research group is developing new generations of catalysts, reactors, spectroscopic and imagining tools, and computational models that are essential for understanding and controlling the chemical transformation of biomass.

Tell us about your role and what you are focused on in the next 12 months.

I lead a research group of graduate students and post-docs whose mission is to design new catalyst processes for more efficiently and economically converting biomass into fuels and chemicals. We have some excellent collaborators here at Wisconsin who all bring a multi-disciplinary skill set to tackle these challenging problems. This skill set includes: catalyst synthesis, spectroscopy, quantum chemical calculations, kinetic modeling, process systems analysis, biomass characterization, and high throughput catalyst testing.

What do you feel are the most important milestones the industry must achieve in the next 5 years?  

We must continue to see commercial success stories with using lignocellulosic biomass as a feedstock to make liquid fuels and chemicals.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the Advanced Bioeconomy, what would you change? 

We need more honesty in this industry about the status of where biofuel technologies are really at in terms of the economics, and technology. We also need more honesty with how long it takes to develop new technologies in the petrochemical industry.

Of all the reasons that influenced you to join the Advanced Bioeconomy industry, what single reason stands out for you as still being compelling and important to you?  

My background is in the field of heterogeneous catalysis. I got into this area because I saw the tremendous potential that catalysis could have on using our biomass resources more efficiently. I still think we are far from using our biomass resources as efficiently as we could be.

Where are you from? 

I was born in Washington DC and grew up in Santa Rosa, CA.

What was your undergraduate major in college, and where did you attend? Why did you choose that school and that pathway?

My undergraduate major was Chemical Engineering and I attended Brigham Young University. At first I was a chemistry major but found my chemistry classes to theoretical with little practical application. After I took my first chemical engineering course I knew this was the perfect major for me and I have been excited about this field ever since.

Who do you consider your mentors – could be personal, business, or just people you have read about and admire. What have you learned from them?   

I could easily write a book on this topic! The first person to teach me about catalysis was Prof. Calvin Bartholomew my MS advisor. I met him when I responded to an advertisement looking for a research assistant. He told me about the project, which was on methane conversion to diesel fuel by Fischer Tropsch Synthesis funded by ExxonMobil. I thought this was the coolest project ever and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on projects like this. I then was very fortunate to join the laboratory of Jim Dumesic (at Wisconsin) where I learned more about catalysis and how they can be used for biomass conversion. I am lucky to still be able to work with Jim today. I have had several other great mentors in academia and industry including Avelino Corma (my post-doc advisor), David Sudolsky (co-founder of Anellotech), Doug Cameron, Ed Wolynick, Fred Pesa, Chuck Sorenson, Ed Sughrue, Leo Manzer, Alex Bell, Bruce Gates, and too many others to name.

What’s the biggest lesson you ever learned during a period of adversity?  

To stay positive and not give up. Things will get better and good things come after the adversity.

What hobbies do you pursue, away from your work in the industry?  

I have four children ages 5 to 14 so my hobbies are doing things with my family. My two daughters are great Irish Step dancers and love to compete. I am the scoutmaster in my 12 year old son’s boy scout troop. I play legos with my 5 year old son. My children are all very talented musicians. My wife is a writer and I like to read her books.

What are 3 books you’d want to have with you, if you were stranded on a desert island

1. Perry’s Chemical Engineering Handbook

2. Why are we producing biofuels by Robert Brown (the best book on biofuels)

3. The Book of Mormon

What books or articles are on your reading list right now, or you just completed and really enjoyed?  

I am teaching a class on Material Science so I have been studying a lot the book Materials Science and Engineering by William Callister and David Rethwisch. I need to stay ahead of my students in class — which is often very challenging.

What’s your favorite city or place to visit, for a holiday?  

Washington DC

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Category: Million Minds

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