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Maureen McCann

Professor and Assistant Head of Biological Sciences
Director of the Energy Center at Purdue
Director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, a DOE Office of Science–funded Energy Frontier Research Center

Energy expert revved up about biofuels

Maureen McCann doesn't believe in doing things by half measures. This is why she is focused on finding alternatives to our national dependence on oil and leads the charge for next-generation biofuels that more efficiently and economically turn plant biomass into liquid fuels for transportation. McCann thinks that research should have societal impacts in addition to scientific ones.

McCann leads the $20 million Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, or C3Bio, that is developing new methods to directly convert the bulk of plants like maize, sorghum and switchgrass to advanced biofuels and other products currently derived from oil.

The center, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontier Research Center, develops new chemical catalysts and thermal treatments to reduce the need for large and expensive biorefineries and expand the range of biofuels beyond ethanol.

McCann also directs Purdue's Energy Center, which is creating new paths to alternative energy sources including wind, solar, hydrogen and nuclear power, and improving the design of electric and fuel-efficient vehicles. These new technologies also help recharge the economy as they spin off into successful companies.

"I want my work to have not only a scientific impact, but a societal impact,” McCann says of the many hats she wears. “I want to give something back to the taxpayers who make research possible."

Coffee shop creativity: McCann finds the bustle of a coffee shop peaceful. It's a change of location, she says, that spurs creative ideas. "Getting outside of the office and laboratory helps you think outside of the box."

The rewards of teaching: Students' energy and enthusiasm helps fuel McCann's own research drive. "The student-professor relationship is like a series of reflecting mirrors,” she says. “If you get them excited about the science, then their interest and enthusiasm reflect back and energize you."

Measuring success: There are many different forms of success but they all come down to making an impact, McCann says. "If you share something that benefits another individual, whether it’s changing a student's mind about going to graduate school, providing a new technology, or even lending a book that influences someone's thinking, that is success."

By Elizabeth Gardner
Photos by: Mark Simons