Sumani Nunna advanced biofuels research as NCSSM student

By Neil Mehta, Communications Intern

NCSSM ’18 graduate Sumani Nunna was a finalist in the highly competitive International BioGENEius Challenge in Boston.

The only participant from North Carolina, Nunna’s research focused on biomass-to-biofuel conversion. Her study, “Increasing the Economic Viability of Biofuels by Recovering Methoxyphenols As Value-Added Bioproducts,” caught the attention of many, including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (pictured with her above).

Nunna analyzed a biomass-to-biofuel conversion process called catalytic fast-tail pyrolysis. The method produces biocrude, which contains chemicals called oxygenated phenolics, valuable as speciality chemicals. If these can be recovered while making liquid biofuels, the whole process becomes more economical.

“There is a widespread reliance on harmful fossil fuels,” Nunna says. “While the use of biofuels can combat this reliance, biofuels remain economically inviable. Thus, it is vital to develop efficient separation technologies for recovery of high-value chemicals from biomass.”

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics gives its high school students the rare chance to take part in real-world research with industry and university scientists, an opportunity not typically available even to college undergraduates. Nunna’s research was inspired by her experiences at RTI International, where she was an engineering intern through the school’s “amazing” summer research program.

“Working with Dr. David Dayton at RTI was really eye-opening,” Nunna says. “My time at RTI helped develop how I approach research. I learned a lot from interacting with and talking to industry experts in chemical engineering. The first-hand experience was a great way to learn.”

Nunna’s mentorship experience helped introduce her to the fields of chemical engineering and biochemistry, which has helped shape her future career aspirations and is studying biochemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.

While at NCSSM, Nunna was also an active member of science bowl, quiz bowl, and mock trial. She also danced with the Indian Bhangra, Raas, and Bollywood clubs and enjoyed being able to express her culture through performance. As captain of the science bowl team, Nunna led NCSSM’s team to several first-place finishes in regional and state competitions.

“I loved extracurriculars because they allowed me to interact with kids from all over the state,” Nunna says. “On my mock trial team, specifically, nobody was from the same area, and it was interesting to learn about and experience stories from their part of the state.”

Before arriving in Chapel Hill this fall, Nunna spent the summer visiting family and friends in Hyderabad, India, where she also spent some time assisting with cellulose biomass conversion research at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research research facility in Hyderabad.