By Matthew Chin
James C. Liao, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Professor of Chemical Engineering in the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has received the 2014 National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science. He was among 15 individuals recognized by the academy today for major contributions in the physical, biological and medical sciences.
The prestigious prize, which this year is in the area of bio-energy, is for “original scientific work of intrinsic scientific importance and with significant, beneficial applications in industry.” Liao was recognized for “production of higher alcohols as drop-in fuel from sugars, cellulose, waste protein, or carbon dioxide.”
Liao, who is the chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, uses metabolic engineering and synthetic biology techniques in his research. He focuses on developing the biological production of the liquid fuel isobutanol while simultaneously consuming carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. This series of reactions, in essence turning exhaust into fuel, is powered directly by sunlight. He has also developed different methods to create liquid fuels from electricity and from waste proteins; as well as identifying a more efficient way to convert sugars into fuels.
Previous NAS Awards for the Industrial Application of Science have recognized researchers for developments that led to genomic sequencing; lead-free gasoline; oral contraceptives; light-emitting diodes; and transgenic crops.
“The award is a reflection of the originality and impact of work done at UCLA, and I am in debt to many high-quality graduate students and postdoctoral researchers that we have had over the past several years,” Liao said.
The Award for the Industrial Application of Science is presented once every three years. It was established by the IBM Corporation in honor of Ralph E. Gomory, a longtime director of the company’s research division. Gomory was also president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is currently a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The award includes a $25,000 prize and will be presented in April at the academy’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Liao has received many honors for his research, including election to National Academy of Engineering in 2013. He has received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Presidential Green Chemistry Award; a Champion of Change award from the White House; the Eni Prize from the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Milan; the James E. Bailey Award from the Society for Biological Engineering; the Marvin Johnson Award from the American Chemical Society; the Charles Thom Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology; the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Division Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and the Merck Award for Metabolic Engineering.
He has been a UCLA Engineering faculty member since 1997.