Skip to main content

Q&A with Erin Webb: Toward a Tennessee circular bioeconomy

ORNL’s Erin Webb is co-leading a new Circular Bioeconomy Systems Convergent Research Initiative focused on advancing production and use of renewable carbon from Tennessee to meet societal needs. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
ORNL’s Erin Webb is co-leading a new Circular Bioeconomy Systems Convergent Research Initiative focused on advancing production and use of renewable carbon from Tennessee to meet societal needs. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

The University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute in February selected a circular bioeconomy project as one of its newest Convergent Research Initiatives for joint research. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Erin Webb will co-lead the five-year Circular Bioeconomy Systems CRI with UT’s Niki Labbe. Webb is lead for the Bioresource Science and Engineering group and relationship manager for the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, or BETO, at ORNL. Webb discussed the CRI’s first steps, long-term goals, and how her experience as a first-generation, farm-family college student motivates her work. ­­­­­

Q: What is a circular bioeconomy?

A: Both of those words are important. Circularity refers to a system in which we’re more thoughtful about the disposal part of creating, using and disposing by adding reuse and recycling to the mix. Bioeconomy means we’re going to be focused on materials and fuels created from plants, what we refer to as renewable carbon. The project hits sustainability in a couple of ways: by reducing waste destined for landfills, and by using non-petroleum feedstocks to create products and fuels. There’s more acknowledgement in recent years that even simple things such as plastic recycling hasn’t happened the way we thought it would. We were feeling good about putting things in the right bins, but then it turns out recycling just wasn’t happening because it’s so hard and complex. 

Only about 7.2% of global resources are reused or recycled. We want to address this problem by taking it back to the beginning, when products are made. Plants do a good job absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. By using plant-based feedstocks we get a cycle in which plants are growing, storing carbon in their structure and in the soil, then as we harvest them they’re the foundation for useful products that are later re-used while we’re growing more crops, and so on. In the end we keep the rate of carbon uptake steady. The result is multiple avenues for decarbonization and waste reduction while supporting farms and new industry.

Q: What do ORNL and UT bring to the table in this new Circular Bioeconomy Systems initiative?

A: At ORNL we already have a lot of work in this area, and have for decades. We’ve developed hardy plants and microbes to produce biofuels at the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, helped companies refine technologies and scale up biomass processing operations through BETO projects, created plant-based materials and new ways to additively manufacture products as big as houses.

ORNL also leads the federal government’s assessment of biomass opportunities, which recently showed the nation can sustainably harness more than 1.5 billion tons of renewable carbon a year. In addition to its broad agricultural research, UT brings strength in stakeholder engagement. The university runs Tennessee’s agricultural extension service and its 4-H youth development programs as part of its statewide Institute of Agriculture and the school’s mission as a land-grant university. UT has a presence with farmers and agricultural business owners in every county in the state. This is an important aspect of the project, that we bring not just the science, but an understanding of the concerns of landowners, farmers and communities so we can build strong ties and encourage adoption of these new feedstocks for a resilient economy.

Erin Webb’s family farm in Union County, Tennessee. Webb is co-leading a large, diverse team of scientists in support of a Tennessee circular bioeconomy. Credit: Erin Webb/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Q: You have experience as a farmer yourself. How has that shaped your career and scientific pursuits?

A: I grew up on a family farm in East Tennessee and learned a lot about public speaking, citizenship and leadership in 4-H. I even won a 4-H state economics project in high school. I also participated in a STEM program at ORNL that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in science, and I earned my bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering at UT. After earning graduate degrees in Kentucky and Florida, I worked as an agricultural extension professor at the University of Kentucky before returning to Tennessee and joining ORNL. 

Today my husband and I still manage a 94-acre farm in Union County, and our kids are now involved in 4-H. In fact, the farm photo I often use in presentations is of our family farm. I’m deeply passionate about rural communities and helping solve some of the challenges they face today. I’m very optimistic that a stronger bioeconomy, whether that’s materials for manufacturing, food or other outcomes, can provide a boost to these communities. My personal goal is to enable more efficiency and productivity, including encouraging young people to see a future in agriculture. I like to say that farmers are already engaged in math and science, even if they don’t realize it. We have abundant natural resources in Tennessee, with great potential to create more income opportunities around those resources.

Q: What are the goals of the Circular Bioeconomy Systems initiative?

A: We envision profitable production for current and future bioeconomy stakeholders, beginning in Tennessee but also serving as a blueprint for the nation. The project will bring researchers together across the ORNL and UT complex, combining their strengths to tackle real-world challenges for a circular bioeconomy. Circularity cannot be achieved without knowing a lot about these plant feedstocks, their applications and what happens in the reuse/recycling phase after first use. No one is doing that kind of integration, and that’s what we want to achieve. 

barn at farm
Another view of Erin Webb’s family farm in East Tennessee. Webb is bringing together researchers from ORNL and UT to develop circular bioeconomy systems in the state. Credit: Trip Webb

We want to bring together people who know about the plants, where and how to grow them in the most sustainable way, the best way to process biomass, to work with material scientists who can develop biobased materials that are easily reused or recycled, and with people who develop and apply those new products for use in areas such as transportation. We’ll also use our decision science capabilities to identify opportunities and encourage stakeholders. We want to create test beds where we can bring all this knowledge together and develop and analyze products made from plant feedstocks. 

Q: What are some of the potential applications for biobased materials in Tennessee? 

A: One of the opportunities we see is to collaborate with the state’s automotive industry. Tennessee leads the Southeast in automotive manufacturing, with operations spread across the state. Those businesses are looking for carbon offsets and could benefit from a variety of plant-based materials, from bioplastics to foam and insulation, textiles and more that we can support. Both ORNL and UT have good relationships with the automotive industry. ORNL operates DOE user facilities like the National Transportation Research Center and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility that have been engaged in helping industry resolve science and technology challenges for years. There will be other opportunities for biomaterials use. I’m excited to hear what ideas our scientists from different disciplines come up with.

Q: What’s happening now, in the early stages of the initiative?

A: We’re already building our science ecosystem, identifying existing staff and posting openings for new positions. UT and ORNL will staff 10 new positions each for the CRI, targeting a mix of early to mid-career staff, and then in turn hire postdocs and graduate students who will be paired with mentors as part of the initiative. 

I’m excited about bringing together the mission-driven science of ORNL with the open, creative research at UT. There’s a role for researchers of many backgrounds in this initiative. The great thing is you don’t have to be an expert in all these areas to participate. As a lead for the project, I look at the CRI as a giant jigsaw puzzle. There may be a lot of pieces that look like they don’t fit together, but as we make connections and come up with new ideas, you connect those pieces and create something great. What’s fun for me in this role is getting to know more about people and their capabilities across different organizations. I want to connect those parts and create something bigger and better than one individual piece.

Q: Any advice for young people who may be interested in pursuing a science and engineering career in the circular bioeconomy?

A: As an agricultural engineer, we’re taught early on how complex and variable biological systems can be. So, building an industrial system using these highly variable biological feedstocks will be a challenge. We have to be prepared for feedstocks that may change seasonally or may be different depending on how they’re handled, which brings more complexity. We will need a systems approach to handle that complexity. We will need multiple disciplines and people with diverse skillsets, plus integration across disciplines. 

If you’re good at solving puzzles, at thinking creatively and engaging in a new mindset, there’s a place for you in this setting of big, diverse integrated team science. The CRI is all about a culture shift in how we conduct research, bringing together people who may not normally interact to solve big problems. That’s been a hallmark of the national laboratories, and one we want to continue to build on to solve this grand challenge for long-lasting economic and environmental impact.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Related content

UT-ORII selects two new UT-ORNL convergent research initiatives