WARF Innovation Award Goes to Choi Group Biomass/Solar Energy Discovery

Hyun Gil Cha (left) and Professor Kyoung-Shin Choi

A blood test that could save lives and a sun-powered scheme to turn biomass into valuable compounds have won Innovation Awards from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

“The Innovation Awards showcase the people and ideas that make the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the leading edge of scientific research in the nation and world,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF.

One of the year’s prizewinning inventions could offer new hope in the fight against colon cancer through earlier, easier and more detailed detection. The disease afflicts millions worldwide – almost 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Early detection is critical to saving lives but colonoscopy can seem invasive and costly.

A diagnostic test being developed by biochemistry Professor Michael Sussman and his team requires only a small blood sample to search for protein “red flags.” Early results suggest the new test is able to detect cancer at an early stage and may outperform other screening methods. The winning team includes William Dove, Jennifer Pleiman, Edward Huttlin, Perry Pickhardt, Xiaodi Chen, Amy Irving, Adrian Hegeman, Mark Reichelderfer and Gregory Kennedy.

Chemistry Professor Kyoung-Shin Choi and postdoctoral fellow Hyun Gil Cha also took home top honors for their work using solar energy to transform biomass into a highly prized industrial molecule. Their method employs a special type of solar cell to drive a mild but highly efficient chemical reaction.

More specifically, the process oxidizes the biomass chemical HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural) into a compound called FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid), which is used in industry to produce polymer materials, pharmaceuticals, antifungal agents, organic conductors and much more.

The new process is sustainable and may be used to develop plant-based plastics down the line.

“It’s still early but there are people in industry already interested in our work,” says Choi. “We’re putting two different fields together – biomass conversion and solar energy.”

An independent panel of judges selected the winners from a field of six finalists. These finalists were drawn from among more than 380 invention disclosures submitted to WARF over the past 12 months. The winning inventions each receive an award of $5,000, with the funds going to the UW–Madison inventors named on the breakthroughs.

The other finalists included: Karthikeyan Sankaralingam, Jaikrishnan Menon and Lorenzo De Carli for a high-performance memory processing unit; Adel Talaat for methods to detect mycobacterial infections in dairy herds; Robert McDermott and Pradeep Kumar for advancements in quantum computing; and David Lynn and Uttam Manna for their work on super nonstick surface materials.

Sally Younger, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation