John Cushman hopes to found a tradition of synergy
within the Biofuels and Biomass group
John Cushman, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, leads the Biofuel and Biomass group within the Renewable Energy Center. With the title comes the responsibility of searching for funding opportunities and coordinating about 20 faculty members from the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, the College of Science, the College of Engineering and DRI. As the coordinator, he hopes to further develop the group and to foster communication and collaboration across the different disciplines.
Cushman’s original research specialty is in microbiology and biochemistry. He came to the University of Nevada, Reno to continue his research on abiotic stress tolerance in plants. He first became interested in the renewable energy aspect of algae while studying the green algae Dunaliella.
“We were working on a genome sequencing project,” Cushman said. “We have been working on this particular species of algae for about eight years now. The biofuels project started in 2007.”
Since then, Cushman has not only made headway in discovering how algae can be used as feedstock for the manufacture of biofuels, but also he and his colleagues have developed partnerships with other faculty from other colleges.
“Right now we have established collaboration among the College of Agriculture in Department of Biochemistry with myself, with Eric Marchand in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chuck Coronella in Chemical Engineering,” Cushman said. “We bring very different aspects of this project.”
Cushman said he wants to further assemble the faculty on campus and at DRI, provide them with a chance to speak about their own projects and to work together on each other’s projects. As part of this effort, Cushman has organized a monthly meeting for faculty affiliated with the Biofuels and Biomass group to meet and talk about their efforts. He hopes that the group will also allow students to trade expertise and begin using the opportunity for synergy early in their academic careers.
“Part of forming it (the group) is to identify all the expertise on campus and identifying what the natural affinities for interaction are,” he said. “People just need to get together and talk; find out what the other is doing and say ‘we can provide you with this if you want that kind of study.’ Not only will this foster interaction amongst the faculty, but also this will encourage student interaction…if we get them in a group they can start forming their own networks and they can start exchanging ideas.”
The Biofuels and Biomass group is involved with developing feedstock, the material needed to create biofuels. This includes waste feedstock such as coffee ground waste, solid and liquid municipal waste streams, unconventional feedstock crops like Camelina and rabbit brush and Cushman’s own project on algae. The group also works on calculating the economic costs it would take to create biofuels from such materials. Though these are all individual research projects, most of the group’s projects are interlinked, Cushman said.
“This kind of interaction is what the center really wants to foster,” Cushman said. “By combining individual expertise we get much further along in the project and we’re able to do a much more integrated type of study. We’ve expanded the impact of our studies beyond what any individual investigator would consider their own.”