Process engineering technology and scale-up operations; biofuels.
Ken Valentas came to the University of Minnesota from a 27-year career in industry. He worked in chemical engineering at Sinclair Oil and General Mills before rising to the level of Senior Vice President of Engineering at the Pillsbury Company. As Director of the BioTechnology Institute for 16 years, he increased the breadth and depth of the Institute through strategically focused faculty hires. He also strengthened the Institute's graduate program and its connections to industry and established an active and productive exchange program with the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. In an institute promoting industrial-academic cooperation, Valentas brought to the directorship an understanding of this relationship and an ability to interpret positions on both sides, find common ground and move forward.
As an educator, Valentas has drawn on his industry experience to teach the principles of food process engineering and scale-up operations to chemical engineers and food scientists.
More recently, Valentas has applied chemical engineering and scale-up methods to the analysis of energy production from renewable resources such as algae and cellulosic biomass. In 2009, he authored studies commissioned by the Minnesota Legislature that documented state biomass resources in two target areas and outlined plans to convert those resources for renewable energy production. The study considered both economic and environmental impacts in looking at the capacity to sustain and harvest grasslands, brushlands, agricultural residues and forests. The ultimate target is a renewable energy facility to convert the region's cellulosic biomass into environmentally-sustainable carbon-neutral liquid transportation fuels.
Valentas' collaboration with former 3M chemist Steve Heilmann and several other researchers resulted in a patentable process to convert algae into char through hydrothermal carbonization (HTC).
Valentas continues to work with research collaborators and industrial partners to find solutions to new energy needs.