St. Olaf News
Student’s research aims to make paper more sustainable
December 23, 2013
This summer Watson worked alongside University of Wisconsin Professor of Biological Systems Engineering Troy Runge and doctoral candidate Zhou Yang Xiang to examine the byproducts of ethanol, a component in gasoline.
One of the byproducts, distillers dried grain (DDG), is usually fed to livestock on farms. But Watson’s team began looking at other potential uses for the byproduct that could generate more money — and ideally make ethanol less expensive.
Runge, who had previously worked in the paper industry, came up with the idea of using it as a film on paper to protect it and make it sturdier.
“We are essentially implementing a renewable resource in a predominantly nonrenewable field,” Watson says.
A compound that can be extracted from DDG is hemicellulose, which is similar to cellulose, an important structural component in many organisms that provides strength. Currently, paper is covered with a petroleum-based film that is not very efficient. Thus, using hemicellulose would be a greener alternative.
Watson’s summer research experience served as the basis for his distinction project at St. Olaf, which recognizes students for creative and independent scholarship. He plans to return to the lab and will eventually apply to a graduate program in environmental or chemical engineering. But first he plans to enroll in a program to improve his current Chinese language skills — skills he says are increasingly important in the research realm.
“We need scientists — and especially engineers — of the world, not just the states,” says Watson, adding that when he attended the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science conference this fall, he noticed many of the researchers communicated their findings in their native language. “We need multilingual scientists who can collaborate with other researchers across the world so that we can increase scientific advancement.”
Watson is currently a finalist for the Teach for China program.