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News Release: NREL's Gregg Beckham Wins Prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry Award

May 9, 2018

A chemical engineer from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the Royal Society of Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry and Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining Beilby Medal and Prize winner for 2018.

Gregg Beckham, a senior research fellow and group leader at NREL, was awarded the prize for the development of hybrid biological-catalytic and recycling processes to convert biomass and waste plastics to useful chemicals and high-value materials.

A man stands in front of a shelf of glass bottles in a laboratory.

Gregg Beckham, a senior research fellow and chemical engineer at NREL, has won the esteemed 2018 Beilby Medal and Prize for his contributions to the development of hybrid biological-catalytic processes to convert biomass to useful chemicals and high-value materials.

“This is an incredible honor to be chosen for the 2018 Beilby Medal and Prize,” said Beckham, who joined NREL in 2008. “Research is a wonderfully collaborative effort, and I have been so fortunate to get to work together with great researchers both at NREL and around the world on pressing energy and environmental problems that face society today, and I feel that this award acknowledges us all as a large team in this endeavor.”

One of Beckham’s first breakthroughs at NREL was working on lignin valorization using biological and chemical catalysis to convert this abundant organic material into a variety of renewable fuels, chemicals, and materials. NREL researchers applied a “biological funneling” approach used by some bacteria to break down lignin to produce valuable molecules from lignin.

He was also part of the NREL research team that established a new method to produce renewable acrylonitrile—an important commodity chemical—from sugars. This research provides a solution for acrylonitrile production that is environmentally sustainable and cost competitive with the traditional petrochemical process, which is energy-intensive and chemically hazardous.

Most recently, Beckham and an international collaboration of researchers engineered an improved variant of an enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The team inadvertently designed the enzyme to be even better at degrading the man-made polymer, which will move scientists closer to solving the problem of an ever-growing amount of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.

“Gregg’s contributions in the areas of biological and catalytic conversion processes, recycling and upcycling, and the circular economy, have been very influential in the bioenergy industry,” said NREL’s director, Martin Keller. “His passion to change the world by tackling big environmental and energy issues is truly inspiring. Gregg is an exceptional role model and mentor to his team, and NREL is proud to see him recognized with this important award.”

The Beilby Medal and Prize has been awarded annually since 1930 to a scientist or engineer for work that has exceptional practical significance in chemical engineering, applied materials science, energy efficiency, or a related field. Winners are recognized for the originality and impact of their research, or for their contributions to the chemical sciences industry or chemistry education. The awards also acknowledge the importance of teamwork across the chemical sciences, and the abilities of individuals to develop successful collaborations.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.