Day: May 28, 2020

Becky Ong: Color-Changing Potions and Magical Microbes

Miscanthus, otherwise known as Switchgrass, a perennial grass, can be used for making biofuels. “But plant materials are very complex,” says Dr. Rebecca Ong. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

Dr. Becky Ong shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 1 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Fungus Breath? It’s a good thing!

Enter the magical world of herbology and potions with Dr. Becky Ong. Learn how to make your own color-changing potion and use it to find the best conditions to generate and collect fungus breath. Discover the science behind the magic, what makes plants and microbes so cool. 

Dr. Becky Ong in her lab at Michigan Technological University. She is both a biologist and a chemical engineer.

Dr. Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, runs the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech, where she and her team of student researchers put plants to good use.

“As engineers we aren’t just learning about the world, but we’re applying our knowledge of the world to make it a better place,” she says. “That is what I love. As a chemical engineer, I get to merge chemistry, biology, physics, and math to help solve such crazy huge problems as: how we’re going to have enough energy and food for everyone in the future; how we’re going to deal with all this waste that we’re creating; how to keep our environment clean, beautiful and safe for ourselves and the creatures who share our world.” 

For this session of Husky Bites, you’re going to want to gather some common household supplies. No time for supplies? Just watch it happen in Dr. Ong’s kitchen live via Zoom. Learn the details at mtu.edu/huskybites

Dr. Ong, a born Yooper,  is a Michigan Tech alumna. She graduated in 2005 with two degrees, one in Biological Sciences, and the other in Chemical Engineering. She went on to Michigan State University to earn a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2011. Growing up, she was one of the youngest garden club enthusiasts in northern Michigan, a science-loving kid who accompanied her grandparents to club events like “growing great gardens” or “tulip time.” When she wasn’t tending the family garden, she was “mucking about in nature” learning from parents who had both trained as foresters.

“We conduct many small-scale experiments in the lab—on a variety of plant materials grown under different environmental conditions. We want to determine just how those conditions affect the production of biofuels.”

Q: When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I first became interested in engineering in high school when I learned it was a way to combine math and science to solve problems. I loved math and science and thought that sounded brilliant. However, I didn’t understand at the time what that really meant. I thought “problems” meant the types of problems you solve in math class. Since then I’ve learned these problems are major issues that are faced by all of humanity, such as: How do we enable widespread access to clean energy? How do we produce sufficient amounts of safe vaccines and medicine, particularly in a crisis? How do we process food products, while maintaining safety and nutritional quality? As a chemical engineer I am able to combine my love of biology, chemistry, physics, and math to create novel solutions to society’s problems. One thing I love about MTU is that the university gives students tons of hands-on opportunities to solve real problems, not just problems out of a textbook (though we still do a fair number of those!). These are the types of problems our students will be solving when they go on to their future careers.

Q: Tell us about yourself. What do you like to do outside the lab?

I’m a born Yooper who grew up in the small-town northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and came back to the UP for school.

I love the Copper Country and MTU students so much, I managed to persuade my husband to come back to Houghton 5 years ago. Now I live near campus with my husband, 4-year-old daughter, our Torbie cat and our curly-haired dog.

We read science fiction and fantasy stories; play board games; kayak on the canals and lakes while watching for signs of wildlife; make new things out of yarn, fabric, wood, and plastic (not all at the same time)—and practice herbology (plants and plant lore) and potions in the garden and kitchen. 

Huskies in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech

Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought
Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Want to know more about Husky Bites? 

Read about it here.

Husky Bites is BYOC: Bring Your Own Curiosity to this Family-Friendly Free Webinar, Mondays this Summer at 6 pm EST.


Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought

High yields. A deep root system that prevents soil erosion and allows for minimal irrigation. The ability to pull large amounts of carbon out of the air and sequester it in the soil. Beneficial effects on wildlife, pollination, and water quality. Perennial grasses, such as switchgrass and elephant grass, are wonderful in many ways and especially promising biofuel feedstocks. But that promise, a team of researchers discovered, may evaporate during a drought.

“The characteristics of any living organism are linked to their genetics and the environment they experience during growth,” says Rebecca Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Bioenergy production is no different. It’s a chain where every link, including the feedstock characteristics, influences the final product—the fuel.”

Ong is both a chemical engineer and a biologist. She holds a unique perspective on how the bioenergy system fits together, which comes in handy, especially now, in light of a recent puzzling discovery.

“Plants have lower biomass yields during a drought. You understand this when you don’t need to mow your lawn after a dry spell,” she explains. “The same is true with switchgrass. Besides the expected effect on crop yields, we were completely unable to produce fuel from switchgrass—using one of our standard biofuel microbes—grown during a major drought year.”

“At the lab scale this is an interesting result. But at the industrial scale, this could potentially be devastating to a biorefinery,” she says.

Ong, her research team, and colleagues within the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a cross-disciplinary research center led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, are making efforts to understand, pulling in researchers from across the production chain to study the problem. 

Ong is the only Michigan Tech faculty member in the GLBRC. “Our team was able to identify some of the compounds formed in the plant in response to drought stress, contributing to the inhibition. But plant materials are very complex. We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

The first step, she says, is to understand what inhibits fuel production. “Once we know that, we can engineer solutions: new, tailor-made plants with improved characteristics, as well as modifications to processing, such as the use of different microbes, to overcome these issues.”

Ong points out that in the U.S., gasoline is largely supplemented with E10 ethanol, derived from sugars in corn grain. However renewable fuels can be produced from any source of sugars—including perennial grasses, which if planted on less productive land do not conflict with food production.

“Ultimately, if we are to replace fossil energy in the long term, we need a broad alternative energy portfolio,” says Ong. “We need industry to succeed. We are engaging in highly collaborative research to ensure that happens.”