Iowa State’s Robert C. Brown elected to National Academy of Inventors

AMES, Iowa – Robert C. Brown, an Iowa State University engineer who has 26 U.S. patents, has been elected a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

Robert C. Brown head shot

Robert C. Brown

Many of Brown’s inventions involve the thermochemical conversion of biomass such as corn stalks or wood chips into a liquid bio-oil for energy and a biochar for fertilizer. One such invention changed how a technology called fast pyrolysis provides energy to the process of breaking down biomass.

The standard way transfers external heat energy into a reactor. Brown’s new “autothermal” process adds air to the reactor to burn a small amount of the pyrolysis products. That turns out to be a more efficient way to heat and break down biomass. And, this partial combustion does little to affect the yield of bio-oil.

“I really enjoy brainstorming new ideas – especially if they induce eye rolling among staff members, which was the case for autothermal pyrolysis,” said Brown, the co-director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

The academy’s selection committee said in a statement that Brown was elected because he had “demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.”

Brown reacted to his election by saying, “Of course I’m delighted. I’ve always thought of myself more as an inventor than as a faculty member or an engineer.”

Brown said there are more inventions in his research group’s pipeline, everything from using a pyrolysis/biochar system to compete for a $50 million grand prize from the XPRIZE Foundation for carbon removal to developing technology for the rapid carbonation of beer. (The latter was named “RCB” by his students, which happens to be his initials, said Brown, who teaches an experimental course in the “Science and Practice of Brewing.”)

Brown and other members of this year’s class of fellows will be formally inducted next June at the NAI’s annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The conference’s theme will be, “Unlocking Innovation: Keys to Societal Solutions.”

Other NAI fellows from Iowa State and their years of election are: