In 2009, Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory open the $24.8 million, 57,000-sq.-ft. Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory on the WSU Tri-Cities campus in Richland.
Then they recruited Dr. Birgitte Ahring, an internationally recognized microbiologist from Denmark, to run it.
Ahring received her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1986 from the University of Copenhagen. She is an internationally recognized authority in using anaerobic bacteria — bacteria that exists in an oxygen-free environment — to biodegradable waste.
It’s been nearly two years since BSEL opened and the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business was curious about what is happening at the lab now.
TCAJoB: What is your background?
Ahring: I was trained as a microbiologist but have worked with in many fields. Right now I would say that have broad expertise within both biotechnology and biochemical engineering.
TCAJoB: Why did you chose to take the head position at BSEL?
Ahring: I found the partnership between a university and a national laboratory very exciting.
TCAJoB: What’s the relationship between WSU and PNNL, as it pertains to BSEL?
Ahring: The laboratory is specialized in production of biofuels and bioproducts and is a joint venture between WSU and PNNL. Right now PNNL has nearly 60 staff in the building while WSU has 20 scientists working in the building. The activities are expected to increase significant during the coming years to support the onset of the bio-economy.I believe that BSEL has shown new ways for collaborations between national laboratories and universities.
TCAJoB: How many students and scientists are working at the lab and what types of projects are underway?
Ahring: Right now we have six Ph.D. students and post-doctoral students working at BSEL. They work on production of infrastructure ready fuels such as hydrocarbons and on production of bioproducts, such as food additives.
TCAJoB: Have any significant technologies come out of the lab yet? If not, what do you expect for the future?
Ahring: Yes, several new inventions have been developed and a number of these are in the process of patent filing. The will allow for start up of new production lines in the future.
TCAJoB: In January, the lab received a $1.1 million federal grant. How is that money being used?
Ahring: The money is used for providing the partners in the Advanced Biofuels consortium with pretreated biomass samples and for further development of our pretreatment technology. This will allow the partners to test their microbial or chemical system under realistic conditions.
TCAJoB: In your opinion, how does BSEL benefit the Tri-Cities?
Ahring: As the flagship BSEL is, it provides visibility of the Tri-Cities on the world map and makes the Tri-Cities more interesting for new businesses to come.
TCAJoB: How does it benefit the scientific community?
Ahring: It makes a high-level scientific environments interesting to collaborate with.
TCAJoB: You moved here from Denmark in 2008. Now that you have been here nearly two years, what do you think of the Tri-Cities?
Ahring: I like the atmosphere here in the Tri-Cities. The area is very open to new ideas and it is possible to make a change. This is important for me and I am looking forward to new accomplishments during the next years.