U.S. Energy Department Taps MSU Scholar for $750,000 Early Career Award

September 11, 2017

Neeraj Rai
Photo by Diane Godwin
A Mississippi State assistant professor of chemical engineering is receiving a prestigious early career research award, along with $750,000 in research funding, from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Neeraj Rai is one of only 59 scientists in the U.S. selected for the award. His current research project is one of 38 selected for funding from academic institutions nationwide and is titled "Probing Condensed-Phase Structure and Dynamics in Hierarchical Zeolites and Nanosheets for Catalytic Upgradation of Biomass." The funding award is to support research expenses over a five-year period.

Rai's research goal is to develop advanced computational frameworks for understanding chemical and physical processes at the molecular level and to design novel materials for meeting the nation's future energy needs. Students in his research group will simulate biomass conversion for establishing design principles for developing efficient catalysts and processes that convert lignin and cellulose into chemicals, fuels and other renewable and sustainable materials that benefit society.

His recognition marks the first DOE early career research award at MSU.

"This is a highly-competitive national award that provides resources to only a select few who are considered exceptional researchers," said David Shaw, MSU's vice president for research and economic development. "We're very proud of Dr. Rai's achievements and contributions to Mississippi State's research community."

Rai joined the Dave C. Swalm School of Chemical Engineering in MSU's Bagley College of Engineering in 2013. The computational tools Rai continues to develop at MSU's High Performance Computing Collaboratory will give molecular-level insight into how to separate and break down lignin and cellulose biopolymers to produce plant derived fuels that can meet future energy needs in a more sustainable manner.

"Dr. Rai's research expertise in molecular-level chemical processes has several broad impacts to our society. I am proud to see his transformative work recognized with such a prestigious award," said Jason Keith, dean and professor of the Bagley College.

Rai said current chemical processes have been designed and perfected over the last century primarily to process hydrocarbon based feedstock.

"However, it is a significant challenge to convert biomass into fuels and chemicals due to significant oxygen content. So, we have to create new technologies that are efficient and economically viable to convert complex biomass into carbon neutral products," Rai explained.

The DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program is in its eighth year. It is designed to bolster the nation's scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work. This year's award recipients were selected from a pool of about 700 university- and laboratory- based applicants based on peer review by outside scientific experts.

Before joining MSU, Rai was a postdoctoral research associate at the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center at the University of Delaware. He also conducted postdoctoral research in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department at the University of Notre Dame. He obtained his doctoral degree in chemical physics from the University of Minnesota, and his bachelor's in chemical engineering from Karnataka Regional Engineering College, presently known as the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, India.

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