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Liao Wins ENI Award for Renewable Energy Research

By Bill Kisliuk | June 3, 2013

James C. Liao, UCLA's Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Professor and chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been named co-winner of the 2013 Eni Prize for renewable energy research.

The honor, to be presented at the presidential Palace in Rome on June 27, is given by the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Milan. It comes with an award of 200,000 Euros, or about $260,000. Liao shares the 2013 renewable energy award with Frances Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The foundation awarded separate prizes to five other researchers.

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Liao was recognized for his work in synthesizing isobutanol and other higher alcohols as biofuels. Liao also has developed a way to turn electricity into liquid fuel. His breakthroughs have potential for use in numerous industrial and energy applications.

In a letter, the commission stated Liao’s technology “is a major contributor to solutions for energy and carbon dioxide accumulation problems.”

Liao expressed gratitude for the recognition of the work done by his current and former researchers.
“I am surprised and greatly honored to receive this significant award,” Liao said. “My group and I will continue to develop energy technology from renewable resources. In particular, we will focus on converting CO2 to fuels or other chemicals.”

Earlier this year, Liao was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor given to engineers in the United States.

“Jim is applying groundbreaking techniques to solve the critical and related problems of curbing greenhouse gases and producing sustainable fuels,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Recognition from the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei is further proof that his work here at UCLA Engineering is unsurpassed.”

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 Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei is a nonprofit research institution founded in 1989 by Eni S.p.A., the Italian-based multinational energy firm formed by Enrico Mattei in the 1950s. The foundation is devoted to the study of sustainable development and promoting innovative research on a wide range of environmental, energy and economic issues.

Liao, who received his B.S. from National Taiwan University and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, began his career as a research scientist at the Eastman Kodak Co. He joined UCLA Engineering in 1997. He has received numerous honors for his work, including the Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Award; a Champion of Change award from the White House; the James E. Bailey Award from the Society for Biological Engineering; the Marvin Johnson Award from the American Chemical Society; the Charles Thom Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology; the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Division Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and the Merck Award for Metabolic Engineering.
Caltech’s Arnold, also recognized by Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, synthesizes enzymes and organisms for applications in medicine, neurobiology and alternative energy.

“Frances is the world's leading expert on protein engineering,” Liao said. ”Sharing the award with her is absolutely the best part of this fantastic news.”

Eni also awarded prizes to: Matteo Cargnello, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Trieste; Professor Roberto Danovaro of Università Politecnica delle Marche; Damiano Genovese, a researcher at Harvard University; Professor Philip Jessop of Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada;  and Professor Rajamani Krishna of the University of Amsterdam.