Scientist Ben Hsiao embarks on research that may make the world look at waste differently
By Greg Filiano
Benjamin Hsiao, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Stony Brook University, loves to improvise on his electric guitar. Playing blues is a passion when he is not in his chemistry laboratory or teaching. The exercise of improvisation forces him to get the music right. He takes that same approach as a chemist and researcher. Hsiao has had to improvise during his 40-year career to get it right in the lab, and he is now on the verge of carving out visionary work developing materials that may have a major global impact on sustainability and help mitigate climate change.
For Hsiao, learning how to improvise when research doesn’t pan out as expected, or when one’s role changes in academia, has brought him to an exciting path where he and colleagues are now creating a formulation using biomass to change the world’s view of fertilizers — and potentially its landscape as a product.
Born in Taiwan, Hsiao came to the United States in 1982 as a graduate student in materials science. He became more intrigued with polymer chemistry, earning a postdoc research position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, then pursued a career in industry working at DuPont in Delaware. But after eight years working there in an industry setting and with his interests broadening, he needed to pivot.
“I was just not satisfied to work only in industry and developing products for profit alone, and I began to think hard about academia,” Hsiao said.
In 1997, while still at DuPont, Hsiao became aware of an open position in the Department of Chemistry at Stony Brook. With encouragement from a SBU faculty member — Ben Chu, Distinguished Professor Emeritus — he applied and was hired as an assistant professor. Fast forward 26 years — Hsiao focuses his work on polymer chemistry with a creativity and improvisational spirit that has become his professional way of life.
In 2009, Hsiao had the opportunity to visit the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) — which supports scientific research and exploration in Northern Kenya — with its founder and fellow Stony Brook professor, the world-renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey (who passed away in January 2022). Experiencing the remote region and witnessing the humanitarian outreach of Leakey and others from TBI brought Hsiao to an awakening — he had a firsthand look at the lack of resources and level of poverty many in the region experience.
“The Turkana Basin Institute experience inspired me to change my research focus from basic-science-driven to more applied-science-focused, and more importantly from a pursuit of excellence to a pursuit of humanity,” Hsaio said.
After making several return visits to TBI, Hsiao learned more and dug deeper into the challenges the people of Northern Kenya had to sustain their lives with food production and clean drinking water.
“Everything I experienced kind of all came together in my mind,” Hsiao said, “and it became clear to me that I wanted to help lift the base of the human pyramid, there and perhaps in other regions too, by providing new solutions for water purification and sustainable food production.”
Transforming Water Purification
Back at Stony Brook, Hsiao went to work in his lab. Within a few years, Hsiao’s group developed a solution using biomass and nanotechnology — a nanocellulose — that can be used to create nanoscale fibers for natural water filters. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), he and his team are developing this technology to a point where it can potentially be mass produced into cheap water filtration products.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hsiao said the mandatory isolation and the sad inequality of casualties led him to hours of meditation and concentration. His inspiration drawn from visits to TBI grew and during the pandemic he felt a stronger pull to aid the planet. Hsiao decided to address food security along with clean water, with a focus to further research that could “lift up the lower part of the human pyramid.”
Hsiao had a new idea for biomass research that is related to his nanocellulose technology: to create fertilizer products from biomass waste.
He pointed out that just as there were risks to consider with his decision to change from industry to academia, regarding his career and his family life, that is also true with his changing research goals. But he added it’s all part of the way scientists must push their creativity and improvise in the moment to become successful in any given endeavor.
“In the Chinese language, there are two characters to describe the word ‘crisis,’ and they are ‘danger’ and the other is ‘opportunity,’” Hsiao said. “I see many of our current world problems as an opportunity to do something great that can impact millions, if not billions of people.”
In 2020, his fertilizer idea and previous biomass research morphed into a new project, which in 2023 is now supported by an NSF Convergence Accelerator Program award of $570,000. He is the lead investigator and Stony Brook is the principal institution for an international project with Hsiao’s colleagues at University of Queensland, Australia. They aim to develop low-cost sustainable fertilizers designed to improve the production of crops and plant growth by repurposing the massive amounts of biomass waste that exists worldwide.
“Because of the pandemic, for nearly three years I was forced to work and center our new research locally,” Hsiao said. “What I found was with all of the expertise at Stony Brook, ranging from chemists to engineers, computer scientists, public health experts, anthropologists and others, plus the willingness of local farms and businesses, we had what we needed right here on Long Island to show that our biomass process for making fertilizers has great potential.”
Hsiao’s research team — consisting of undergraduates, masters, graduate and postdoctoral students — is developing new types of low-cost and safe fertilizers using diverse feedstocks from agricultural residues, animal waste and food waste for agricultural applications, as well as biogels for infrastructural protection and drought mitigation. The work is centered on a zero-waste process that could beneficially impact local and global farming and thus food production and sustainability.
Professor Hsiao has been working on developing circular solutions to two key problems related to global sustainability challenges: access to clean water and the ability to green agricultural practices. His work has been transformative as the methods and processes developed in his lab have the potential to significantly transform global practices, leading to a more sustainable future.
– Dilip Gersappe, Professor and Chair, Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering
Although the recent NSF grant enables Hsiao and his colleagues to use 2023 to advance the fertilizer research and create local test beds, its mandate is to assemble an international team of interdisciplinary researchers to come together to solve a worldwide problem and challenge, in this case, food production and sustainability.
Take a tour of Hsiao’s laboratory in Stony Brook’s Chemistry building and you’ll see lots of jars with gels and labels. “These gels are products from agricultural waste and animal waste such as cow manure, tomato parts, you name it,” Hsiao said. There is even a small section of used coffee grounds samples from the Starbucks SBU campus location. “We are working with local farmers, wineries and composting facilities, and are seeking collaborations with large corporations, as they could be a huge source of organic waste.”
Hsiao related that what he loves about his band and playing blues — is when each part of the music and players come together. This is what he hopes happens with the current biomass-to-fertilizer project.
Always aware of the broader implications of his research and what he sees as the orchestration of life, work and educating others, Hsiao summarizes the big picture: “If this process proves workable and can be applied worldwide, it would be a great change and improvement to food production, a huge reduction of biowaste, create jobs, change the way we make fertilizers — which can cause harm to the environment — all with the result of impacting climate change, which is good for every person on the planet.”
Greg Filiano is the media relations manager for Stony Brook Medicine.