Featured Expert: Katrina Cornish

assets/uploads/katrina_cornish_dandelion.jpgKatrina Cornish, Ohio Research Scholar and Endowed Chair in Bio-based Emergent Materials

An Interview with Katrina Cornish, Ohio Research Scholar

Many researchers experience a ‘eureka’ moment after years of diligent work, tedious testing and advocating for replicated results. But for Katrina Cornish, this moment happened when she was 8 years old.

Cornish, an Ohio Research Scholar and Endowed Chair in Bio-based Emergent Materials with Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, grew up in England where her interest in science was first sparked. One day in a natural history class, she realized plants do everything that animals do, except they have to do it standing in one spot, while animals are free to run away.

This thought has lingered with Cornish through her various research experiences and breakthroughs relating to natural adaptation and physical responses, and led her to become a leading researcher in sustainable production and the 100 percent utilization of products.

Cornish holds an appointment with the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, a courtesy appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and adjunct appointments in The University of Akron Department of Polymer Science and in the University of the Western Cape (South Africa) Biotechnology Department. She is based on the Ohio State Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC).

What are your research interests?

My interests include several different projects relating to bio-based emergent materials, natural rubber biosynthesis and production, and utilization of food and agricultural wastes. My current research has a large focus on the rubber-producing crops named Buckeye Gold (aka Russian dandelion)and guayule, a shrub native to the southwestern U.S.

My research program is all about taking basic research to applied and then through the development and commercialization processes. We are working now to develop and commercialize rubber from the Buckeye Gold rubber dandelion, a new crop plant for Ohio, and to profitably use all parts of the plant. I am very interested in converting the inulin coproduced with the rubber into a butadiene—replacing an essential building block of petroleum-based synthetic polymers with a biobased, but identical, version.

Some specific projects are food processing research, where we have been characterizing waste into separate types and either fermenting these into sugars then fuels, or converting them into biobased fillers for the polymer industry

Another impactful project is based in South Africa where guayule plants are grown on small farms to produce latex and cooking fuel and to provide the local people with employment.

Why are these two crops important in the field of bio-based emergent materials?

Buckeye Gold is a plant that produces natural rubber and can be cultivated to meet the burgeoning shortfalls in global rubber production. Also, currently, synthetic rubber is made from petroleum, so replacing this with a natural crop has a direct impact on the need for petroleum. We can also use this crop to produce inulin, a coproduct of rubber production, which could be converted into a supplemental feedstock for ethanol or used in fermentation processes to produce advanced fuels and chemicals.

Guayule makes latex safe for use by people with allergy to latex. In addition, it makes a lot of resin, similar to resin from pine trees. We can alter the particular types of resin in this plant to make ones that can be used as a green diesel fuel. We are also working on taking resin-rich woody biomass, after extracting the latex, and turning it into pyrolysis oil, a biofuel under investigation as a substitute for petroleum. Guayule can be converted with 60 percent efficiency and with a 75 percent fuel oil conversion, the highest-energy bio oil yet made from a biomass product.

What potential will the application of your discoveries bring to the bio-energy field?

These plants have not yet been exploited for biofuels. The rubber market itself could pay for the crop based on the latex content. We have shown that the high energy biomass residual is produced at the latex plant, already ground up and ready for downstream processing, reducing the cost of the feedstock enormously. The plants can be processed year-round, and the development of this hydrocarbon-rich biomass can be produced cheaply because it is a co-product, not primary product. Cost estimates suggest transportation fuel could be produced for less than $1 per gallon.

What will the next steps of your research consist of?

The next steps of my work depend on what results we get. We will continue to increase the hydrocarbon yield in these crops to benefit the latex and rubber yields and the bio-oil quality. Fermentation processes are being expanded to increase the portfolio of viable fuels and chemicals. The greatest challenge with this is getting these crops on significantly large acres for production, and able to be fully commercialized.

What has been one of the most rewarding moments of your research?

In 1991, I was working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the biotechnological production of natural rubber (the search for the enzymes and genes needed to make rubber) when the first latex allergy conference occurred between the latex industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I had already been working on biochemical commonalities in rubber-producing species, and so I knew that the proteins in different species did not always share the same immunogenic surface features. I proposed using guayule latex as an alternative to tropical latex for people with Type I latex allergy, a massive public health problem. The conference concluded with a number of eminent allergists signing up to perform tests. Eventually, the FDA also recognized that guayule latex could be used without causing an allergic response in a Type I latex sensitized patient.

What do you most admire in your field?

I greatly admire an ongoing project in South Africa, where guayule has begun to be farmed, providing local black South Africans in the Eastern Cape with employment. Seeing those individuals pitch in and help with this project is most admirable because it is making the biggest humanitarian impact within my research.

What goals or dreams do you have yet to accomplish?

My ultimate goal is toestablish a permanent, natural domestic rubber industry based on highly mechanized production systems. The U.S. has the ability to become self-sustainable in rubber consumption, potentially creating 200,000 jobs and protecting U.S. interests. We could become a rubber exporting country with over 1 million jobs. In parallel, I want to establish the South African labor intensive production system to provide 11 million people with jobs and education.

How has working at Ohio State made this research different?

It makes it possible. Working here gives researchers freedom to do our own research in ways we consider most important.