Oct. 8, 2009

Hans vanLeeuwen

Hans van Leeuwen is growing microscopic fungi in his Iowa State laboratory and putting the fast-growing crops to work for the biofuels industry. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Preparing for the next 'fungal surprise'

by Mike Krapfl, News Service

So Hans van Leeuwen, back-to-back winner of R&D 100 awards, what's next? van Leeuwen, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, offered a big smile.

It was clear he has a lot going on, inside and outside his research lab.

There are his teaching, publishing, grant-writing and department duties. There's his work as president and founder of MycoInnovations, a company that's been a partner in some of his research. There's work as vice president of MellO3z LLC, a Cedar Rapids company that has developed technology for purifying alcoholic beverages. And don't forget the growing number of van Leeuwen grandchildren all over the world.

But, van Leeuwen said, there might be another "fungal surprise" to report sometime soon.

And it could be very soon. That's because van Leeuwen likes to say his research is really "farming at jet speed."

That's what happens when your crop is microscopic fungi. van Leeuwen can grow, harvest and use his crops in just a day or two. And he's very comfortable with those fast-growing critters (he's even trying to entice them to grow faster) and the pace of that research.

van Leeuwen, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up and went to school in South Africa, has been interested in microorganisms since he was a kid. That's when he started using bacteria to make homemade yogurt. (And he's still at it: homemade yogurt mixed with bran -- plus elderberries when they're in season -- is van Leeuwen's breakfast staple.)

It's obvious van Leeuwen can keep up with his fast-growing crops.

This is the second straight year he has been involved in fungal research that was awarded an R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine. The Chicago Tribune once called the awards the "Oscars of Invention."


In 2008, van Leeuwen led a research team that won an R&D 100 award for its work to grow microscopic fungus in leftovers from ethanol production. The researchers' goal was to improve the efficiency of the corn-to-ethanol conversion process while producing a food-grade fungus to supplement animal feed. van Leeuwen snacks on the fungus too, aiming to develop a product for human consumption.

"The process could change ethanol production in dry-grind plants so much that energy costs can be reduced by as much as one-third," van Leeuwen said.

This year, van Leeuwen led a research team that's studying how a fungus can be used to convert wastes from biomass processing to biodiesel.

"Biodiesel production from traditional oil-rich crops is limited by land availability, climate, and environmental and social issues regarding the use of feed and food crops for fuel," van Leeuwen said. "This method of producing biodiesel is green, sustainable and doesn't compete with food crops."

The research team will pick up that second award on Nov. 12 in Orlando, Fla. John Verkade, a University Professor of chemistry, contributed catalyst work to the project and also analyzed the resulting biodiesel for purity and yield. And he said the project was a good experience.

First of all, Verkade said van Leeuwen fostered independence in the group and let everybody do their part. And second, "this won us an R&D 100, so it must have been a good experience."

Besides, "He's a fellow Dutchman and we speak Dutch once in a while."

An entrepreneur?

Back in his office on the fourth floor of the Town Engineering Building, van Leeuwen said Iowa State has been one of the longest stops in his professional career. He likes it here.

So much so, that even if his research projects turn into business ventures, he doesn't see himself running off to manage a company. And that wouldn't be something new for van Leeuwen. Back in his student days at the University of Pretoria where he earned a doctorate of engineering, he ran a flower exporting business and a company that made fiberglass body panels for sports cars.

"It's not my major desire to leave here and be an entrepreneur," van Leeuwen said. "I'd like to have it all together. That could mean being a technical director of a company and still being here. I enjoy everything I do here."