CBE grad wins MacArthur Foundation genius grant

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

Photo of Paul Dauenhauer

Paul Dauenhauer. Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

When the MacArthur Foundation notified Paul Dauenhauer that he was selected as one of its fellows in early October 2020, he was completely surprised. In fact, the University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical engineering alum didn’t think engineers were ever honored with the award, also known as the “genius” grant, which recognizes exceptional creativity across many disciplines with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000.

“It was shocking. No one’s prepared to receive something like that, much less an engineer,” he says. “When I think of creativity, I think of great artists. I guess now that I’ve had time to think about it, creativity in engineering is finding unique solutions to problems.”

That type of creative thinking is a hallmark of 39-year-old Dauenhauer’s career. Growing up around the paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, he decided chemical engineering would be a good fit for him and chose UW-Madison for his undergraduate degree due to its nationally recognized program.

At UW-Madison, he focused on his studies in chemical engineering and chemistry, but also set aside time to perform in the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, where he played trombone (and where he began dating his future wife, a mellophone player and later, a veterinary student).

During his junior year in 2003, he remembers reading an article by Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Emeritus James Dumesic about the possibility of using cola to power a laptop. The right catalytic reaction, Dumesic noted in the paper, would produce enough energy to run the computer.

That, and other interactions, turned Dauenhauer onto the study of catalysis, a specialty of the UW-Madison Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

After earning his PhD at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, he worked for a year at Dow Chemical before taking a position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2009. There, he worked alongside George Huber, now Richard L. Antoine Professor in chemical and biological engineering at UW-Madison. He returned to the University of Minnesota in 2014 where he is currently the Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science.

Dauenhauer’s research is focused on producing sustainable fuels and chemicals from renewable resources. That includes developing new methods for producing high yields of the chemical feedstocks p-xylene, used in plastics, and isoprene, a component of synthetic rubber derived from wood, agricultural waste and other biomass. He’s also developed a new class of surfactants derived from sugar and fatty acids that have the potential to replace petrochemical-based versions.

But the thing that he believes may have put him on the radar of the MacArthur Foundation, which is notoriously opaque about its nomination process, is his approach to catalysis. “Catalysis is an old field,” he says. “What may have gotten some attention is our creative solutions to old problems.”

For instance, researchers long assumed that the Sabatier maximum—also known as the catalytic speed limit—was insurmountable. This principle states that, because catalysts must constantly balance chemical reactions, they can only proceed at a certain rate. But Dauenhauer and his team found that by matching certain resonant frequencies with catalytic reactions, they could speed them up 10,000 times their normal rate, breaking the catalytic speed limit.

That breakthrough could make prohibitively expensive processes, like electrolyzing water to make ammonia, much more affordable. Producing ammonia from wind and solar power could be a clean way to store energy from renewables since ammonia only produces air and water when it’s combusted.

Dauenhauer says his time at UW-Madison deserves a lot of credit for his success. “The education and training that I received at the University of Wisconsin was absolutely first rate. The engineering college and the university as a whole provided fundamental grounding in core principles such as mathematics and thermodynamics, but our education also included application of these skills to research and technology,” he says.

It was the breadth of his education, however, that helped him develop his creative approach to problem solving. “I had the opportunity to take courses in history, anthropology, jazz music history (with now-retired professor and marching band director Mike Leckrone), and even ballroom dance,” he says. “With all of this experience, the University of Wisconsin helped me to think critically and provided the foundation for future success.”

Author: Jason Daley