Newswise — Teamwork isn’t just for athletes. Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan, a professor and graduate coordinator at South Dakota State University’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, believes teamwork is important in research as well.
Recently named a fellow at the 2012 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Annual International Meeting, Muthukumarappan said, “This belongs to SDSU more than it belongs to me as a human being.” As a professional, he believes his selection “recognizes my hard work for the last 16 years with SDSU, and also the teamwork SDSU has fostered from the day when I joined in 1997.”
Only 0.2 percent of the approximately 5,000 consultants, managers and researchers from more than 100 countries who belong to the engineering society achieve the designation of fellow. To be considered, an individual must demonstrate unusual professional distinction, have outstanding qualifications and experience in the field of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and have been an active member for more than 20 years.
“One man cannot do everything,” said the engineering professor who is known on campus as “Muthu.” Because of the collaboration that the university encourages, “I was able to be successful in the food and bioprocess engineering area.”
A researcher’s efforts to mentor students is another criteria for selection as a fellow. Through multiple projects, Muthu currently works with eight graduate students and two postdoctoral researchers. An accomplished researcher, Muthu sees his major accomplishments in his students. “When they graduate and go and find a new career and are successful, that is my greatest achievement.”
Muthu’s students assist him in research that is diverse as well as global. He has studied rice in Thailand, cheese in Wisconsin and food safety in Ireland. His research at SDSU has focused on adding value to South Dakota crops by studying a variety of grains and biomass, the healthy qualities of soybeans, and the use of dried distillers’ grain in food for commercial fish farms.
Ten years ago Muthu moved into the bioenergy area when SDSU became host to the North Central Center of the Sun Grant Initiative, one of five regional centers nationwide composed of land-grant universities and federally-funded laboratories.
“They were encouraging people to get involved in the engineering aspect of biofuel production, developing new methods for pretreating the biomass,” Muthu explained.
The corn-to-ethanol process was well developed, but research on breaking down lignocellulosic biomass was in the early stages. Using plant materials such corn stalks, native grasses and wood residues as energy sources requires breaking down the cell walls to release sugars that can be converted into fuel.
Muthu developed a new continuous method using extrusion and alkali to improve the conversion efficiency.
Through his work with the Center for Bioprocessing Research and Development in Rapid City, Muthu has been able to collaborate with researchers at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and SDSU as well as various regional institutions on several bioenergy-related projects.
Using the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake Mine, his research team is exploring the use of extremophiles, a highly efficient enzyme, to break down biomass. Findings show increased sugar production using fewer enzymes on corn stalks and leaves, switchgrass and prairie cord grass. Decreasing the cost of pretreatment is one more step on the road to making biofuels production a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
“If we are willing to collaborate, we can be much more productive,” Muthu said. “Collaboration is win-win for everybody.”
Within the next 10 years, Muthu hopes to see pilot scale biofuels facilities being built. “We are on the right track; it’s just a matter of time.”