Shota Atsumi, a chemical and biomolecular engineer, came to the United States in 2002 after being frustrated by the hierarchical academic culture in his native Japan. “It’s very difficult there for a young scientist to have any real independence,” Atsumi says, “and it’s not an easy place to take risks.” Arriving at the University of California-Los Angeles as a postdoctoral researcher in 2006, Atsumi and his mentor, Professor James C. Liao, began exploring entirely new ways to generate environmentally friendly fuel. Atsumi remembers the tough time they had their first year in the laboratory. “I was at that lab working even on Thanksgiving Day,” Atsumi says, “because we so very much wanted a good result!”
After a year of exhibiting that sort of work ethic – and suffering many failed experiments – Atsumi and Liao developed a way to make a petroleum replacement called isobutanol from E. coli bacteria. That fuel can serve as a substitute for petroleum, or be added to traditional fuels to cut down on harmful carbon emissions. Their invention has since been licensed to the Colorado renewable energy startup Gevo, which plans to open the world’s first commercial-grade isobutanol plant later this year. The Minnesota-based facility will employ 28 people; it already has a purchase order from the U.S. Air Force and an agreement to potentially provide renewable bottles to The Coca-Cola Company. Atsumi himself has since become a professor at University of California-Davis, a position that allowed him to obtain his green card with the school’s help and sponsorship of his application.
In a sign of the prevalence and importance of foreign-born scientists to the U.S. culture of innovation, the company that bought Atsumi’s technology has its own ties to immigrants in academia. One of Gevo’s original founders was Peter Meinhold, a German immigrant who helped discover a cost-effective way to make renewable fuels while earning his PhD at Caltech. Officials at that university cite his startup as one of their great success stories of the last ten years. Atsumi’s team at UC Davis is currently part of the U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E project, which is working to engineer a Methane-to-Acetate pathway for producing liquid biofuels.