PULLMAN – Norman Lewis, regents professor and director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry at WSU, will give a far-reaching futuristic perspective of our growing energy needs, with an emphasis on biofuels, in Seattle this month as part of WSU’s “Innovators” luncheon.
 
In a world once again confronted with volatility in oil prices, with perceptions of a dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and with concerns that biofuels will negatively impact our food supply, Lewis believes solving the growing energy crisis with a sustainable domestic solution represents a “Grand Challenge” for both the nation and humanity.
 
Motivated by soaring oil prices and our reliance on fossil fuels for everyday activities like traveling and farming, Lewis’s goal of helping reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels by replacing them with environmentally friendly biofuels has inspired groundbreaking research at WSU. Recent breakthrough results from experiments with plant lignins – vascular structures, akin to the human skeleton – and related aromatic hydrocarbons, have suggested sustainable new ways of producing renewable biofuels and other products such as polymer substitutes.
 
Lewis will discuss these research advances in his presentation, “Biofuels: Natural Solutions to the Energy Crisis” at noon on Nov. 13. Luncheon registration will begin at 11:30 a.m. in The Rainier Club in downtown Seattle. Registration is also available online at www.theinnovators.wsu.edu or by calling 877-978-3868.
 
Describing the state’s wide range of microclimates, Lewis believes Washington State is ideally positioned to develop a number of non-food varieties of vegetation matter into sustainable energy resources. A variety of plant species (poplar, cedar, flax, creosote bush, canola, etc.) – all growing in the Pacific Northwest – have chemistries that can provide new potential sources of renewable, clean, and sustainable energy that could soon become a practical reality.
 
“My belief is that if Washington does this right, we should be able to generate centers within the state that will take leadership in the development of natural solutions to the energy crisis,” he said. “We can do it and we must do it.”
 
The current focus of the work of Lewis and his colleagues at WSU is on creating biofuels and polymer substitutes to be used in lubricants, plastics and even jet fuel, in part, by genetically modifying non-food crop plants. Their efforts to develop natural, renewable, clean, and sustainable solutions to the world’s energy needs contribute to global efforts to reduce environmental impact, such as air and water pollution.
 
With Washington’s large utilities required to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 and federal mandates requiring 30 percent of gasoline to come from alternative fuels, demand for bioenergy solutions will continue to climb. Lewis’ work contributes to worldwide efforts to conserve natural resources and reduce energy costs, while helping contribute to the state’s economic strength and global influence.
 
Lewis joined WSU in 1990 and has served continuously since as director and Fellow of the Institute of Biological Chemistry. He is also Regents’ Professor and the Arthur M. and Kate Eisig-Tode Distinguished Professor.
 
He has pioneered our understanding of the biochemistry of phenylpropanoids. Much of his research focuses on how land-based plants produce lignins, which help give plants and trees rigidity, but also must be broken down or eliminated before plants can be used for production of paper, fuel, and other bioproducts. His research activities also extend to understanding how the related lignans are formed, many of these having nutritional/medicinal roles in either preventing or treating various cancers.
 
Lewis is widely recognized by the plant science research community as one of the outstanding plant biochemists in the nation.