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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Dr. Christopher Roberts: Auburn University's Best President

By: Donald V. Watkins

November 29, 2022

On February 4, 2022, Dr. Christopher B. Roberts was named as the 21st president of Auburn University. He assumed office on May 16, 2022.

I admire and respect Dr. Roberts. He is the most qualified and prestigious Auburn University president in the school's history.

Dr. Roberts is a fair-minded leader who is not shackled to Auburn’s long, ugly, judicially-documented, racist past. He is a bold, strong, and visionary leader. His brilliance knows no bounds.

I first met Dr. Roberts in 2007 when he served as the Chairperson for the Department of Chemical Engineering at Auburn. We worked together with Dr. Harry T. Cullinan, the head of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering on Auburn’s campus, to: (a) develop new biofuel technologies for cars and trucks, (b) validate the efficiency of a hydrogen-powered propulsion system for jumbo cargo planes, and (c) research Fischer-Tropsch synthesis for liquid aviation fuels, all for the commercial benefit of my international waste-to-fuel companies.

Dr. Roberts is an expert in fuels processing technologies and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of liquid fuels. His professional background in fuels processing technologies is the most impressive in the commercial world.

Auburn’s Reputation in Chemical Engineering is Unsurpassed in the World

Most Alabamians do not realize that Auburn University has a worldwide academic stature and reputation for excellence in chemical engineering. Inside the state, Auburn University is mostly known and celebrated for its "War Eagle" football program.

Around the world, Auburn is known primarily for its excellence in chemical engineering. In this zone, Auburn is Number One in the world.

Thanks to Chris Roberts’ leadership as Department Chair (2003 to 2012) and Dean of the Department of Chemical Engineering (2012 to 2022), Auburn University has no peer in the pioneering world of new and commercially viable clean-burning biofuels and other forms of alternative energy.

The University’s reputation for excellence in this area exceeds that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston), Georgia Tech (Atlanta), Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), and Oxford University (United Kingdom).

The Masada-Auburn Strategic Partnership

On January 8, 2007, Auburn University executed a Sponsored Research Agreement with Masada Resource Group, LLC. Auburn’s engineering work under the Agreement propelled Masada to the forefront of the international world of waste-to-energy technologies.

President Ed Richardson signed the Agreement on behalf of Auburn University. I signed it as Masada’s chief executive officer. The Agreement was a historic business alliance that produced paradigm-shifting waste conversion technologies for both parties.

Over the course of the Agreement, Masada paid Auburn University $500,000 to perform its innovative research and development work. Masada also purchased the Tennessee Valley Authority’s biomass facilities and equipment packages that were used to conduct validation testing on the company's waste-to-ethanol process and donated the facilities and equipment to Auburn University as a $300,000 in-kind gift for research and development purposes.

In 2010, Auburn published its first major study under the Masada Sponsored Research Agreement. Titled, “Reductive Modification of Alkaline Pulping of Southern Pine, Integrated with Hydrothermal Pre-extraction of Hemicelluloses” by Sung-Hoon Yoon, Harry T. Cullinan, and Gopal A. Krishnagopalan, the study was published in the prestigious Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research, 2010, 49, 5969–5976.

This study opened new markets for Masada, which grew over the next ten years from one planned domestic waste-to-energy project in upstate New York to 19 strategic partnerships covering market and project development activities in over 40 international markets.

On June 16, 2010, Auburn made this major announcement,

Under an agreement with Masada Resource Group, researchers in Auburn’s Department of Chemical Engineering have developed a series of technologies that utilize waste streams from pulp and paper mills and convert them into high-value products. Professors Harry Cullinan, Gopal Krishnagopalan, Y.Y. Lee and senior research fellow Sung-Hoon Yoon, along with several graduate students, developed methodologies to extract fermentable elements of current waste streams for possible conversion into ethanol.”

This engineering breakthrough expanded Masada’s core waste conversion technologies and enabled the company to offer proven mill sludge-to-ethanol technology to commercial customers for the first time.

Auburn filed worldwide patent applications for all of these Masada-related technologies. Additionally, Auburn and Masada executed a license agreement, with Masada committing to commercializing the technologies and providing a future royalty stream to Auburn.

The pioneering work of the Christopher Roberts-led Department of Chemical Engineering and the Harry T. Cullinan-led Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering at Auburn University, together with significant engineering contributions from TVA and the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, Colorado, made Masada a global leader in the world of waste-to-energy technologies.

In the fog that engulfed Auburn University's hiring of a football coach yesterday, it is easy for Alabamians to lose sight of Auburn University true status and mission in the world. Football fans may question many things about the hiring of Hugh Freeze as Auburn's head football coach, but one area where Auburn University is Number One, and has been for the last two decades, is in its creation, development, and commercialization of innovative biofuels technologies.

Related Articles:

Thank You, Auburn University, published on December 7, 2018; and

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Kamar Jones
Kamar Jones
Nov 30, 2022

Very insightful. It's unfortunate that football takes such a high preference than the being a leader in development of biofuel technology. It makes me wonder why there aren't large chemical plants on the state to compliment the technology.

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