Robert Brown: a Passion for Energy Innovation

For the Project Director and Principal Investigator for the Iowa NSF EPSCoR project, founding director of the Bioeconomy Institute, and author of Why Are We Producing Biofuels, the word “passionate” is not enough to describe Robert Brown’s feelings about renewable energy. The challenge of finding one title to call Brown is reflected in his plethora of titles and appointments. Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering are just as accurate as professor of mechanical engineering, chemical and biological engineering, and agricultural and biosystems engineering. In fact, Brown needs a two sided business card just to fit all of this titles on a single card.

[PHOTO]Robert BrownBrown started his academic career at the University of Missouri where he graduated with bachelor degrees in physics and mathematics in 1976. For his graduate career, Brown obtained his M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University in 1977 and 1980 respectively. After three years in industry he joined Iowa State University where he began research in fossil energy utilization. “I think I was in sixth grade when I read about a program to design a Mars rover, something that was almost science fiction at the time,” Brown said. “One of the main problems was providing energy to power the vehicle. It made me appreciate how universal is the problem of energy supply.”

The Transition to Renewable Energy

In the early 1990’s Brown converted a coal combustor to gasify biomass. A few years later Brown and his team designed and built a pyrolyzer to produce bio-oil. The use of a gasifier and pyrolyzer to transform biomass into products with usable energy application are key research components of the bioenergy platform Brown leads for the EPSCoR project. “I hope that Iowa recognizes the opportunities and responsibilities relative to expanding biorenewables in the state. To take advantage of these opportunities requires investment in  new technologies and collaboration with companies that aspire to develop them. The responsibilities include ensuring the sustainability of biorenewables agriculture,” Brown said.

The creation of a dedicated renewable energy research center started in 2002 when Brown and a small group of faculty started the Bioeconomy Initiative at ISU to investigate the use of biorenewable resources as sustainable feedstocks for producing chemicals, fuels, materials, and energy. By 2007, activities in biorenewables had greatly expanded and the Iowa Board of Regents approved the founding of the Bioeconomy Institute, a permanent research program at ISU.

Starting in 2010, Brown has been a regular on Biofuel Digest’s “Top 100 People in Bioenergy.” The annual lists gauges industry leaders and scientists on their impact within the biofuel industry. Brown was ranked 61 and 59  the past two years on a list than only includes half a dozen academics.

Reigning Iowa NSF Project Director

The Iowa NSF EPSCoR project helps expand already credible programs, such as the Bioeconomy Institute, to help make renewable energy become more viable energy sources. Developing technologies that make renewable energy more readily available to consumers and easier for industry to produce is a focus of Iowa NSF EPSCoR. “The purpose of the NSF EPSCoR program is to build research capacity in states that have historically received lesser amounts of the NSF annual research budget. Iowa has chosen to build capacity in renewable energy and energy efficiency research,” Brown said.

The Iowa NSF EPSCoR program affects research across the regent universities – University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Northern Iowa University. Brown hopes that as a leader he can build stronger relationships between the regent universities in terms of collaborations as well as bridge community colleges and private universities in Iowa.

Biochar, the Original Miracle Fertilizer

Brown continues his energy research outside of the lab by using biochar, a product of hybrid processing,  his own garden. Biochar is renowned for its ability to retain nutrients and add fertility to soil. Archaeologists believe the remnants of charcoal created by the fires of ancient people is responsible for particularly fertile soil, terra preta, found in the Amazon Basin. “My wife was pleased with the biochar experiment because it got me involved in the garden. I was out every morning before work inspecting the garden’s  progress and carrying water to the plants,” said Brown. “But the neighbors did wonder about my weighing and recording every tomato harvested.”

The use of biochar as a garden supplement is an active area of research. Biochar is named for its resemblance to charcoal, but often has a much finer texture like dust. Biochar contains large amounts of solid carbon that originated from growing plants absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Burial of biochar removes this carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years. Thus, biochar may be a solution to global climate change.

Looking to the Future

Brown highlights the importance of renewable energy to Iowa’s economy in his book Why Are We Producing Biofuels? which was published this past March. “Iowa is clearly leading the nation in renewable energy: it has embraced both wind power and biofuels,” Brown said. “Whether it continues to hold this position will depend upon the extent that if participates in the development and deployment of the next generation of renewable energy technologies.”

Robert C. Brown

Iowa NSF ESPCoR Responsibilities: Bioenergy Platform Leader

Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, Iowa State University
Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering
Iowa Farm Bureau Director, Bioeconomy Institute
Director, Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies

See Bio (Iowa State University Web Site)


Effective Jan. 2, 2013, Robert Brown stepped down as the Iowa NSF EPSCoR director to focus on new research projects in biorenewable energy. Brown remained as the leader of the Iowa NSF EPSCoR bioenergy platform.

1140E Biorenewables Research Laboratory
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011