Toivo Kallas, a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professor of microbial genetics and biotechnology, will receive a Regent Scholar grant to support his research in the critical effort to stem global warming at the UW System Board of Regents meeting in Madison on Thursday, Feb. 4.
Kallas will be one of three recipients of the honor presented by the board’s Research, Economic Development and Innovation (REDI) Committee.
Key objectives of the Regent Scholar grant program include providing summer funding support for faculty to engage in research and other scholarly activities while stimulating innovation and industry outreach at UW System campuses across a wide spectrum of academic pursuits.
“This program recognizes and honors outside-the-box thinking by UW faculty and undergraduates across Wisconsin,” UW System President Ray Cross said. “The Regent Scholar grants provide recognition at the highest level for work done by our dedicated and talented faculty to prepare a high-quality workforce and ultimately to accelerate business and community development statewide.”
Kallas will receive a $50,000 grant for his work involving bioengineering of a newly discovered, ultra-fast-growing cyanobacterium for enhanced carbon capture and chemicals production. This work has critical global economic and ecological implications as 2015 was the warmest year on record.
“Carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of fossil fuels is a principal causative factor of global warming and climate change. The urgent need to address climate change and its dire consequences is underscored in the 2014 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Kallas explained. “The report details increasingly severe consequences that include rising sea levels, ocean acidification, droughts and famine, massive population displacements, ensuing disease and conflicts, and increasingly severe storms.”
The recent 2015 Paris Climate Conference marked a tipping point in global awareness of these issues as 195 nations, including the U.S., China and India, agreed to a resolution to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which represents an extreme danger point. In an important step to meet this challenge, the EPA has mandated a 32-percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030.
Kallas’ grant project will enable undergraduate students at UW Oshkosh to engineer and characterize an ultra-fast growing cyanobacterium (blue-green alga) for carbon conversion to isoprene, a precursor for synthetic rubber, pharmaceuticals and biofuels. The project will jump-start development of the ultra-fast alga, which will accelerate algal strain engineering and progress toward commercially viable industrial carbon dioxide capture by carbon conversion to high-value chemicals.
“Microalgae such as cyanobacteria can help mitigate carbon emissions because they efficiently convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into bioproducts at rates much higher than in land plants,” Kallas explained. “Many states and industries are fighting the EPA mandate to reduce carbon emissions because of concerns over costs. However, if carbon capture can be made profitable, then industries, the environment and society will all benefit.”
The UW Oshkosh work could make a “huge” impact, Kallas said, as the ultra-fast alga can capture as much as eight-times the carbon in a 12-hour period and convert this to eight times the bioproduct relative to the current strain.”
“This will accelerate strain development from months to weeks or days and may be the crucial factor for carbon capture by algal bioreactors made commercially viable through bioproduct sales,” he said.
UW-Eau Claire associate professor Joseph Hupy and UW-Platteville assistant professor Mohammad Rabbani also will be named 2016 UW System Regent Scholars.