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Jerry Tuskan: Sustainable fuels and bioproducts

Jerry Tuskan in the greenhouse at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

Jerry Tuskan is chief executive officer for the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, or CBI, headquartered at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In his role, Tuskan leads a multi-institutional DOE Bioenergy Research Center focused on advancing biofuels and bioproducts for a robust domestic bioeconomy.

Tuskan is leading CBI’s research into bioenergy-relevant plants, microbes, and new methods to enable production of sustainable aviation fuel, bioproducts that sequester carbon, and sustainable replacements for plastics and other environmentally damaging products.

Tuskan, a widely respected plant geneticist and ORNL Corporate Fellow scientist, is known for his work in sequencing, assembling, and annotating the genomes of poplar and eucalyptus bioenergy feedstocks. His personal research supports the engineering of hardy, drought- and disease-resistant biomass crops that could be grown on marginal lands, supporting sustainable biofuels to replace fossil-based fuels for long-haul and aviation transportation applications.

What climate-related question are you working on?

What we want to do is displace the use of fossil fuel through production of sustainable aviation fuel. If we can replace petroleum-based fuels with renewable biomass-based fuels, we have the opportunity to offset some of the carbon emissions that currently occur and are projected to increase in the future.

Using plants to produce fuels and bioproducts has multiple benefits. During photosynthesis, when biomass forms, plants draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When we convert that biomass into fuels, carbon stored in the plant roots remains stored belowground. This means biofuel production contributes to carbon sequestration as well as fossil fuel displacement.

Why does the research matter?

As we know, humans have had an impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide. Global models predict that increases in carbon dioxide accelerate climate change. The climate consequences include more frequent and severe storms, which lead to profound effects on coastal regions. A large part of the world lives within 100 feet of sea level, and for every inch of sea level rise, there's a displacement effect rippling around the world that has economic consequences for millions of people. If we can meet the U.S. goals for displacing fossil fuels and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, we will not only create green jobs here at home, but we will also benefit people around the world who live in low-elevation environments in coastal regions.

What keeps you motivated?

What is exciting to me, in the context of climate-related concerns, is the unique combination of highly motivated and well-trained scientists within CBI who work as a collaborative team to address future critical questions. We've assembled the world's best experts in many areas, including soil carbon sequestration, plant wall biosynthesis, microbial conversion of cell walls into fermentative intermediates, and catalytic chemistry for the conversion of those intermediates into hydrocarbons that can be used as a means of displacing current aviation fuel.

The scientists we have working on this problem are all bright, hardworking and committed, and it’s contagious to be around people like that, who have a vision and are working hard to achieve that vision.

What about the research keeps you up at night?

We have such a narrow window in which to impact atmospheric carbon dioxide and to develop the economically viable technologies needed to displace petroleum-based energy and to sequester historic amounts of carbon dioxide. It's an enormous challenge to address in a short amount of time. What keeps me up at night is how do we move quickly enough to provide answers to the global climate change challenge.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

There is a tremendous demand and need for new transportation fuels and technologies. I happen to be working on liquid fuels, but the demand is just as high for batteries, wind power, solar power and other renewables. If you're the type of person who dreams of a better future for society and for the environment, there's no better place to work right now than in addressing the issues related to climate change.