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Lynd Wins Sustainability Award

Inaugural Lemelson-MIT honor goes to Thayer professor

Lee Lynd, professor of engineering and adjunct professor of biology at Thayer School of Engineering, is the first recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. The award, which carries a prize of $100,000, "recognizes inventors whose products or processes are viable and sustainable, and have high potential to improve the quality of life for future generations."

Lee Lynd
Lee Lynd, recipient of the inaugural Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, examines a bacteria culture. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Decades ago, Lee Lynd started doing something about global warming and the rapid depletion of the world's nonrenewable energy resources," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, in a press release issued by MIT. "He continued to experiment and pursue his ideas even when the conventional wisdom said they couldn't be done."

Lynd was recognized for his work on cellulose-derived ethanol. Most ethanol produced today is processed from corn seed. While that is currently the most cost-effective method of deriving ethanol from plants, it has disadvantages. Corn requires a relatively intense cultivation process, in terms of water use and demands on soil fertility, and using it as the raw material for fuel also diverts a food crop.

Cellulosic ethanol begins with cellulose, the structural matter of plant cells, which can be derived from less intensively cultivated crops, and even from material usually considered waste. Current production processes reduce the cellulose to sugars, which are digested by microorganisms, and then distilled into ethanol. Lynd's research at Dartmouth, and that of the Mascoma Corporation, a cellulosic biofuels start-up that Lynd co-founded in 2006, focuses on improving the efficiency of the microbial digestion process, a key to making cellulosic ethanol more cost-effective.

"Lee's groundbreaking research has driven forward the public policy debate, the business world, and the fundamental science of bioenergy," says Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and one of Lynd's nominators for the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. "His work has helped frame our basic understanding of the sustainable potential for bioenergy and especially biofuels."

"I am of course very pleased to be recognized for invention in pursuit of sustainability—I cannot think of anything I would rather be honored for," Lynd says. "The monetary part of the award will enable me to be more adventurous in the ideas we pursue, and in recruiting talented people to join the group." Lynd foresees a wider impact from the award as well: "The publicity will help inspire confidence in our approach and in the renewable fuels field on the part of both the public and talented individuals who are looking to apply their technical skills to make a difference in the world.

"Having worked for decades in a field that few thought was important, it is refreshing and satisfying to be in the public eye all of a sudden," says Lynd.

The announcement of Lynd's Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability follows on the earlier news of the Mascoma Corporation's receipt of a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The grant will fund a joint research venture with the DOE at its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08