By Wileen Wong Kromhout

James C. Liao, the Chancellor’s Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been named the holder of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering.

The chair, established through an endowment by the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, honors the memory and the life work of Ralph Parsons, founder of the global engineering and construction firm bearing his name.

The foundation was established in 1961 and has been independent of the company since 1976. It strives to support and facilitate the work of Southern California’s best nonprofit organizations, recognizing that those in need today will go on to shape the future of the region and help it set and achieve new goals.

The endowed chair is intended to educate a brand of engineers who can design new technological products and systems while at the same time anticipating and preventing adverse social and environmental impacts, such as pollution. Much of Liao’s research focuses on creating new ways to produce environmentally friendly biofuels and chemicals.

“Jim Liao is a world renowned scholar in metabolic engineering, synthetic biology and systems biology,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering. “In addition, he is an excellent teacher and mentor who has been recognized with several major awards in his field. This chair will help support Jim’s work as a leading educator and researcher in biofuel technology.”

Over the past few years, Liao has received widespread attention for his work in developing methods for the production of more efficient biofuels. This has included genetically modifying E. coli bacteria and modifying cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide to produce the liquid fuel isobutanol — a reaction powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.

“It is an honor to be named the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering,” Liao said. “This endowment will not only support our efforts to enrich the educational experience of our students but will also support our research in a vitally important area.”

Last summer, Liao was awarded the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The first UCLA professor to receive the award in its 15-year history, Liao was recognized for his groundbreaking work recycling carbon dioxide for the biosynthesis of higher alcohols. This process turns CO2 into products that can be used in alternative transportation fuels or chemical feedstock, reducing greenhouse emissions.

Liao was also awarded $4 million by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop a method for converting carbon dioxide into the liquid fuel isobutanol using electricity as the energy source instead of sunlight. And last month, he was awarded an additional $2.2 million by ARPA-E, this time to streamline the process by which green plants convert CO2 into sugar or biofuels. This technology could potentially be applied broadly to improve yields of grain and biomass.

In addition, Liao has been sponsored by KAITEKI Institute Inc. (TKI), the strategic arm of one of Japan’s largest chemical companies, to research ways to recycle and convert CO2 into chemicals that can be used to produce a variety of industrial products, including car bumpers, packaging materials, DVDs and even diapers.