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A Real and Positive Impact

Lee Lynd engineers a sustainable future

Lee Lynd believes that engineering has the potential to solve many of the world's most pressing problems, and he enjoys the challenge.

Lee Lynd and Oliver Townsend '09
Professor of Engineering Lee Lynd (left) and Oliver Townsend '09. Lynd's Mascoma Corporation is developing practical alternatives to fossil fuels with cellulose-derived ethanol. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"I love working on both big picture issues and breakthrough technologies at the same time, and I love working at the intersection of extending fundamental frontiers and applied capability," says Lynd, a professor of engineering at Thayer School of Engineering and an adjunct professor of biological sciences. "Most of all, I love being in a position where I dare to hope that my work might help make a difference in addressing a defining challenge of our time: navigating a smooth transition to a world supported by sustainable resources." Lynd's students, among them Oliver Townsend '09, have similar aspirations. "With our education comes a duty to repay society. Professor Lynd applies the material and methods to not just any examples, but to real situations that deal with the environment, sustainability, and the altruistic benefits of engineering."

Lynd is one of the world's foremost experts on cellulose-derived ethanol, a renewable alternative to fossil fuel. He is the inaugural recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, given to an inventor who has "high potential to improve the quality of life for future generations." There is currently a high level of interest in cellulosic ethanol because it could be made from readily available raw materials, such as grass and forestry wastes, as opposed to corn.

In 2006, the cellulosic biomass-to-ethanol company Lynd co-founded, Mascoma Corporation, received $39 million in funding from private investors and $4.9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy this year. Lynd frequently testifies on Capitol Hill in support of policies that would promote renewable energy and he shares his expertise with the media. "Lee's contributions have been more than scientific," says Joseph Helble, dean of Thayer. "He sees it as his responsibility to use his knowledge to help educate in the broadest sense, and to move his science into the outside community where it can be put to use."

Despite the national recognition, Lynd says he's still learning from his students. "I try to draw on and develop the talents students bring to the group, recognizing that there are some areas where their talents are greater than my own," he says. Beyond contributing to his research on sustainable fuels, Lynd's students have worked on such projects as designing an anaerobic digester for a dairy farm in Plainfield, N.H., and using computer simulation to understand the dynamics of the fishing industry. "The most rewarding part of this work is that it is firmly grounded in environmental change," says Kara Podkaminer, Thayer '09. "I feel that the projects I have been part of can have a real and positive impact."

Lynd says he places a high value on the educational environment at Dartmouth, where he can transcend traditional academic boundaries. "It is a pleasure to have students—both undergraduate and graduate—who embrace interdisciplinary studies and are not looking for a compartmentalized approach," he says. At Thayer, faculty with expertise in a range of engineering and science disciplines work together. Dean Helble explains, "The lack of departments at Thayer and the open collaborations that characterize Dartmouth provide an atmosphere in which faculty are free to tackle a problem from all vantage points. Collaborations are driven not by departments but by the problems that need to be solved."

Lynd feels that he makes a difference for students outside of the classroom setting as well. "I believe students value my input in the one-on-one discussions, and I have some credibility with them, because I have experience walking a path seeking world impact through science."

Hannah Murnen '06, Thayer '07, agrees, "Professor Lynd helped me in the process of choosing classes, finding summer internships, writing recommendations, and choosing a graduate program. The passion he has for his work carries into his teaching and advising." Podkaminer adds, "There are a small number of people who walk the line between science and policy within the renewable energy field, and Professor Lynd is one of them. His is a model I hope to follow."

By STEVEN J. SMITH

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Last Updated: 5/30/08