WMU researchers hope to revolutionize papermaking with $2.5M grant

Contact: Cindy Wagner

Dr. Mert Atilhan works in his lab in Floyd Hall, home to Western Michigan University's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Atilhan is a leading researcher on a $2.5 million grant awarded to WMU by the U.S. Department of Energy.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In a promising breakthrough, a research team from Western Michigan University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences has been awarded a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to reduce the carbon footprint in paper production. 

Mert Atilhan

Dr. Mert Atilhan

“This project holds promise in revolutionizing the way paper is made, making it more sustainable for our planet,” says Dr. Mert Atilhan, associate professor of chemical and paper engineering. The team includes Dr. Kecheng Li, principal investigator and chair of the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering, along with three other departmental researchers, Drs. Said Abubakr, Priyanka Sharma and Abdus Salam

“Our work will contribute significantly to transforming the traditional energy-intense pulping industry to a more environmentally friendly one—with a lower carbon footprint and less chemical consumption,” says Li.  

The team is developing a novel method using enzymes and special solvents, known as deep eutectic solvents, to save energy and reduce carbon output when treating wood chips before they go through a conventional chemical pulping process.  

“Not only does this method use fewer chemicals and lower temperatures, but this method can also be incorporated into existing paper manufacturing processes with little to no changes in existing infrastructure,” says Atilhan. 

Kecheng Li headshot

Dr. Kecheng Li

This grant brings together multidisciplinary experts as well as graduate and undergraduate student researchers. “Combining interdisciplinary collaboration and invaluable contributions from our students demonstrates our holistic approach to problem-solving,” says Atilhan. “We presented a vision of innovation meets sustainability that aligns well with the DOE’s mission to support transformative scientific solutions for pressing environmental challenges as well as the goals of the paper industry.”  

Several industry partners including leaders in the Kraft pulping industry—International Paper, Graphic Packaging International and Domtar—will collaborate with Western on this project, making $1.18 million in-kind contributions to support commercial-scale trials and commercialization efforts. 

Atilhan began pursuing the idea several years ago after earning Western’s competitive Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award. That foundational work, which was published in the journal "Nature Energy," is revolutionary because it takes a process that historically has been slow and volatile and streamlined it.

“It’s exciting to see how our foundational work on this project has come full circle,” says Atilhan of the initiative he began in 2021 with a small group of WMU students. “With the new grant, our focus is on further optimizing the enzyme and deep eutectic solvents treatment process to ensure seamless integration into existing pulp manufacturing workflows.”  

The DOE grant, titled “Enzyme/Deep Eutectic Solvent Enhanced Kraft Pulping to Reduce its Carbon Intensity,” runs from October 2023 through October 2026. 

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