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Chemical engineering alumna receives federal early career award

Collen Carow, Yasmeen Ebada | Sep 7, 2018
Elizabeth Biddinger poses for headshot

Chemical engineering alumna receives federal early career award

Collen Carow, Yasmeen Ebada | Sep 7, 2018

An Ohio University chemical and biomolecular engineering alumna has received one of 84 early career awards from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The $750,000 award will enable Elizabeth J. Biddinger, BSCHE ‘05, a graduate of the Cutler Scholars Program, to continue her research. Now an assistant professor at the City College of New York, she studies biomass electroreduction, in which electricity and water -- instead of high temperatures, high pressures and hydrogen gas – are used to effect chemical reactions with biomass in order to create chemicals and fuels.

“It’s a great honor to receive this award. I’m very proud of the recognition from DOE -- it has already led to many other researchers and institutions recognizing me as well,” Biddinger said. “I’m now part of a small cohort of early career awardees forever.”

While at OHIO, Biddinger worked with Russ Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Gerardine Botte for two years on Botte’s groundbreaking “pee-to-power” research, in which electrolysis is used to convert human and animal wastewater into clean water for use in sustainability solutions such as fuel cells.

Botte said Biddinger was passionate about electrochemistry and had a hunger for research.

“This is a very prestigious and competitive award,” Botte said. “It will certainly lead her to make contributions of significant impact toward our energy needs, while accelerating her career path as a prominent faculty member and contributing to the education of graduate students in the energy and electrochemistry field,” she added.

Biddinger’s research shows how electroreduction can transform biomass -- any natural product such as wood, grass, food or agricultural products or waste – into plastics, synthetic fabrics, carpet, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints and fuels. This means less reliance on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels. Electroreduction  uses less energy than traditional processes.

“Most chemical production processes require large scales to be economical, but electrochemical methods can work at smaller scales. This can be necessary when transporting raw or partially processed materials is difficult,” she said. “Also, we can use electricity from solar or wind to make the process more sustainable. Today, we aren’t able to use all of the electricity that’s generated when it’s very sunny or windy, because we can’t plan for that intermittent supply,” Biddinger said, noting that it’s a relatively new area of study. 

Biddinger’s research traces back to her undergraduate days at OHIO. While working with Botte, she co-authored a paper, “Effect of Catalyst on Electrolysis of Ammonia Effluents,” that was published in the Journal of Power Sources in 2008. Biddinger also won a paper award at the American Institute for Chemical Engineering (AIChE) regional competition, where she presented her research project “Feasibility of Electrolyzing Ammonia Effluents for the Production of Hydrogen,” for which she had won an OHIO student enhancement award. She was also invited to give a talk at the National AIChE meeting and presented her research at the 206th Meeting of the Electrochemical Society in Hawaii in 2004.

Biddinger’s more recent awards include the 2014 CUNY Junior Faculty Research Award in Science and Engineering sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, and the 2016-2017 Electrochemical Society – Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship.

Looking back, Biddinger, who holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University and who did her post-doctorate work at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said she never thought she’d end up earning advanced degrees beyond her bachelor’s degree – and she credits her beginnings at OHIO.

“I did think, however, that I could have an impact as a chemical engineer. Now, I’m a professor with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering working in New York City. This started with the foundation I built at OHIO, and the support and encouragement I obtained in the chemical engineering department at the Russ College and Cutler Scholars program,” she said.

Anna Hartenbach contributed to this story.