Labbe focused on beneficial use of extractives

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a multi-part series spotlighting the work of researchers who have received maturation grants from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation.)

Most of the local attention on switchgrass in the last few years has been focused on the generation of ethanol for fuels or the use of lignin, a waste product, as a precursor for low-cost carbon fiber.

Little noticed has been the work of a team, ironically all females, focused on finding beneficial uses from a third component of biomass – extractives. The team recently won a maturation grant from the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation to continue their work.

The researchers are:

  • Doris D’Souza, UT Associate Professor in Food Science and Technology;
  • Kimberly Gwinn, UT Associate Professor in Entomology and Plant Pathology;
  • Nicole (Niki) Labbé, UT Associate Professor in Center for Renewable Carbon;
  • Bonnie H. Ownley, UT Associate Professor in Entomology and Plant Pathology; and
  • Naima Moustaid‐Moussa, former Co-Director of UT’s Obesity Research Center.

We sat down recently with Labbé to better understand their work and their goals. What we quickly learned was the team shared a common interest in the beneficial use of extractives, but had individually-focused research programs.

“From the beginning, the main focus (of the switchgrass work) was sugars to make liquid fuels,” Labbé said. “We believed you cannot take feedstock, use only some of it, and dispose of the rest.”

She explained that sugar, which is extracted to produce ethanol fuel, comprises less than 60 percent of a switchgrass plant. Conversely, extractives content varies from 5 to 25 percent in switchgrass with an average of 15 percent in “Alamo” switchgrass. There was a reason that the switchgrass plant developed extractives to protect itself, and the researchers wanted to capitalize on that reality for various uses.

“We believed we should look into different applications,” Labbé said. One team member is focused on obesity, another on protecting tomato plants against bacterial plant pathogens, and a third on use against foodborne pathogens.

“It’s a broad team with a broad exploration,” Labbé said. Her focus is bio-pesticides.

Labbé explained the importance of the fractionation or separation process that “optimizes getting all of the elements out” in as clean a manner as possible. That extraction process includes the very extractives that Labbé and the other researchers need. In her view, the extractives need to be removed first.

Labbé, who came to UT in 2002, joined with the other researchers in 2010 to focus on extractives. They have pursued several grants, won one before the UT Research Foundation award, and are awaiting a decision on a recent grant application to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

She is a native of a small, energy-challenged French island and graduate of the University of Bordeaux with a doctorate in wood science. Labbé is a full-time researcher who says she “loves what I do” and is focused on “making things better.”

For now, she’s focused on her research and the distinct possibility of a product that could be developed. If that happens, how her invention gets commercialized is another matter.     

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