CSE professor receives prestigious MacArthur Fellowship

‘Genius grant’ rewards faculty who illustrate originality and creative pursuits

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (10/06/2020) — University of Minnesota Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Professor Paul Dauenhauer has been named a 2020 fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Dauenhauer is a recipient of a “genius grant” that is given to faculty who illustrate originality and creative pursuits in their field of study. Damien Fair from the University of Minnesota Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain received the same award this year.

Fellows receive $625,000 stipends that are bestowed with no conditions. Recipients may use the money as they see fit to further their pursuits.

Paul Dauenhauer, the Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professor in the College of Science and Engineering Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, conducts research on developing new technologies for converting biomass—materials derived from organic, renewable sources—into the chemical building blocks of products that are currently sourced from fossil fuels.

Dauenhauer has demonstrated new methods for producing high yields of p-xylene (a key chemical for making polyester and plastics like soda bottles) and isoprene (a critical component of synthetic rubbers) from renewable resources such as wood, crop waste, and other types of refuse. The costs associated with his approach and quality of the resulting chemicals are comparable to production from petrochemical sources.

He has also developed an entirely new class of surfactants (chemical compounds that enable cleaning agents to mix with water) from sugar and fatty acids with the potential to replace petrochemical-based versions used in a large array of cleanser formulations, including detergents, soaps, and personal care products. Dauenhauer’s surfactants have increased biodegradability and exhibit novel and desirable properties not found in conventional detergents. 

“It is a great honor to be selected for the Macarthur Fellowship,” Dauenhauer said. “Our laboratory took immense intellectual risk to develop new, frontier technologies in renewable materials and sustainable energy storage, and these have paid off with the dedication and hard work of our incredible students at the University of Minnesota. I am proud of all of their accomplishments and am pleased to see our collective work highlighted by this award.”

Dauenhauer received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering Materials Science under the mentorship of longtime University of Minnesota Professor Lanny Schmidt.

“This is a great day for Paul, a great day for the University of Minnesota, and a great day for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science," said Dan Frisbie, head of the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

Watch a video of Dauenhauer on the MacArthur Foundation website.

 Fair portrait

Damien A. Fair, PA-C, Ph.D., the Redleaf Endowed Director of the University’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, also received a MacArthur Fellowship Award this year. Fair has extensive research expertise in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience, and is renowned for his collaborative and engaging leadership. He is also a professor in the Institute of Child Development in the College of Education and Human Development and in the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical School.

“It is humbling to have been selected for the MacArthur Fellowship. The progress we’ve made toward characterizing brain function rests on the shoulders of giants in the field, has been motivated by the passions of the students and trainees, and is made possible by the collaborative nature of my peers. I am thrilled for the opportunity to continue this journey toward improving developmental brain health with my exceptional colleagues and community partners here in Minnesota.”

For more information on this year's awards, visit the MacArthur Foundation website.