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Turning green: UCLA's James Liao wins EPA award for transforming CO2 into fuel

We all want to leave smaller carbon footprints, the more we learn how harmful carbon dioxide, primarily in the form of exhaust from burning fossil fuels, can be to air quality. But imagine being able to personally claim credit for removing millions of  tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
That's exactly what James C. Liao, the Chancellor's Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, may soon be able to boast.
His technological breakthrough — turning CO2 into alternative fuel — was acknowledged June 21 in Washington, D.C., when he was presented with the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The awards, launched 15 years ago, promote research on and development of technologies that reduce or eliminate hazardous waste in industrial production. 
"It's a great honor to receive this award," Liao said after the ceremony, at which he and four other honorees were lauded by EPA chief Lisa Jackson, and by President Obama in a written congratulatory statement.
While minimizing hazardous waste and other harmful byproducts, alternative technologies like t Liao's also "often cost less, proving once again that what is good for the environment is also good for our economy," Jackson told the crowd of several hundred packed into the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.
The award winners "show green chemistry pays for our businesses, they show it pays for our health, they show it pays for our economy and they show it pays for our environment," she said.
Efforts to create alternative fuels from CO2 and other byproducts have long been hampered by an inability to produce fuels with high energy.
"Ethanol made by fermentation can be used as a fuel additive, but its use is limited by its low energy content," said Richard Engler of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. "Higher alcohols — those with more than two carbons in the molecule — have higher energy content, but naturally occurring microorganisms do not produce them.
"Dr. Liao and his colleagues have genetically engineered microorganisms to make higher alcohols from glucose or directly from carbon dioxide. His work makes renewable higher alcohols available for use as chemical building blocks or as fuel," he said. (Listen to Engler's podcast about Liao's award.)
In particular, Liao has developed methods for the production of more efficient biofuels by genetically modifying E. coli bacteria and by modifying cyanobacterium to consume CO2 to produce the liquid fuel isobutanol — a reaction powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.
Put more simply, Liao said, he and his team have discovered how to "turn exhaust into fuel."
"The first practical application will probably be to hook up to power plants and recycle some of the CO2 and make it into fuel," Liao said. The technology has multiple uses but "the first goal is to use it as a gasoline replacement."
UCLA has licensed the technology to a private company to handle the actual production of such fuel, which is created through photosynthesis. Easel Biotechnologies, of which Liao is a co-founder, "has licensed several technologies developed at UCLA to produce green chemicals and fuels in a sustainable and cost-competitive manner," according to the company's website.
Liao added that it will likely be five to 10 years before the fruits of his labor can be found in the marketplace.
Several UCLA administrators were on hand to celebrate with Liao.
"This is a tremendous accomplishment," said Vice Chancellor for Research Roberto Peccei. "It shows we're contributing at a level that really makes a difference."
Vijay Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering, said the award and the EPA's publicity shine a spotlight on the practical applications of UCLA's academic research.
"It gives recognition to the school as well as Dr. Liao and tells the technology community about the exciting research that is happening that is vital to our needs," he said.
Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said the awards also serve another purpose — building interest in the field.
"We want to make more people aware and get people thinking about working on projects," she said.
The EPA receives scores of entrants for the Green Chemistry Challenge Award, meaning that recipients really are "the crème de la crème of the green chemistry world," she added.
The other 2010 winners of the award are LS9 Inc.; Down Chemical Co. and BASF; Merck & Co. Inc. and Codexis Inc.; and Clarke.
Liao began his career as a research scientist at the Eastman Kodak Co. and came to UCLA in 1997. A fellow of American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, he has received numerous honors, including a Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation; the Merck Award for Metabolic Engineering; the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Division Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; the Charles Thom Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology; the Marvin Johnson Award from the American Chemical Society; and the James E. Bailey Award from the Society for Biological Engineering.
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