MacArthur Fellows Program

Paul Dauenhauer

Chemical Engineer | Class of 2020

Developing new technologies for converting renewable, organic materials into chemicals used in products such as plastics, rubber, and detergents.

Chemical Engineer
Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science, University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
39 at time of award
Published October 6, 2020

About Paul's Work

Paul Dauenhauer is a chemical engineer developing new technologies for converting biomass—materials derived from organic, renewable sources—into the chemical building blocks of products that are currently sourced from fossil fuels. Most consumer products contain petroleum-based plastics, rubber, detergents, and other chemicals that harm the environment in several ways: from the extraction of the petroleum, to the energy inputs and waste materials associated with the production process, to the limited biodegradability of the resulting products. With expertise that spans reaction chemistry (specific chemical transformations) and catalysis engineering (accelerating reactions), Dauenhauer is opening new pathways for mitigating the environmental impacts of commodity chemicals.

Dauenhauer has demonstrated new methods for producing high yields of p-xylene (a key chemical for making polyester and plastics like soda bottles) and isoprene (a critical component of synthetic rubbers) from renewable resources such as wood, crop waste, and other types of refuse. The costs associated with his approach and quality of the resulting chemicals are comparable to production from petrochemical sources. He has also developed an entirely new class of surfactants (chemical compounds that enable cleaning agents to mix with water) from sugar and fatty acids with the potential to replace petrochemical-based versions used in a large array of cleanser formulations, including detergents, soaps, and personal care products. Dauenhauer’s surfactants have increased biodegradability and exhibit novel and desirable properties not found in conventional detergents.

Dauenhauer is also tackling the critical problem of how to efficiently transform raw (solid) biomass into liquids and gases suitable for use as chemical feedstocks. He and colleagues found that application of oscillating energy waves to a heterogeneous solid catalyst increases the speed of chemical reactions well beyond the previously assumed catalytic “speed limits.” In addition, he developed the Polyarc reactor, a chemical microreactor that enables more efficient measurement of the organic carbon content in fuel mixtures. Dauenhauer’s ability to integrate fundamental research with applied chemical technologies is bringing us closer to greener consumer products and a carbon-neutral future.


Paul Dauenhauer received a BS (2004) from the University of Wisconsin and a PhD (2008) from the University of Minnesota. From 2008 to 2009, Dauenhauer served as a senior research engineer in the Core R&D Reaction Engineering group of the Dow Chemical Company. He was a faculty member of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst from 2009 to 2014, prior to joining the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota, where he is now Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professor. Dauenhauer’s articles have been published in such scientific journals as Green Chemistry, ACS Catalysis, Journal of Physical Chemistry, and Energy and Environmental Science, among others.

In Paul's Words



Civilization is in a race against time to develop the sustainable energy and materials required to expand and continue a healthy quality of life. As our original resource of fossil fuels contributes to catastrophic global climate change and environmental pollution, new manufacturing processes are utilizing renewable resources to make unique fuels and clever new materials that have zero environmental impact. I am inspired to engineer new chemical processes for carbon-free fuels that can store wind and solar power and drive complete decarbonization of the world’s energy system. At the same time, conversion of non-food trees and grasses into biodegradable and recyclable materials enables sustainable use of materials to protect our food, clothe our bodies, and compose our automobiles and devices.

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