Postdoctoral researcher links Kansas agriculture to UN Sustainable Development Goals

"Nakisha Mark"

Nakisha Mark | Postdoctoral Researcher | KU Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis 

Nakisha Mark knows the importance of collaboration — not just in laboratories, but across countries. 

Mark earned her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry from the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine, in the Caribbean island  of Trinidad and Tobago. She went on to work in the health and agricultural sectors before pursuing a doctorate in chemistry.

“I grew up on an agricultural farm, and I was always interested in how scientists made different types of fertilizers and products for the field,” Mark said. “During my experience in the agricultural sector, I realized that there was a vast amount of agricultural residue in the fields that was not being utilized or converted to anything.”

Now Mark is a postdoctoral researcher in KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, working under the guidance of Bala Subramaniam, center director and Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor in chemical & petroleum engineering. A grant from the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) funds her position. 

Mark and her colleagues are using corncobs as renewable chemical feedstocks to create petroleum alternatives for use in products ranging from flavoring agents like vanillin to plastic alternatives to food compounds. Although these potential uses have been known, Mark is investigating new technologies to upcycle corncobs into useful products. 

One of the primary component of corncobs Mark hopes to use is lignin. Extracting lignin from corncobs requires a catalyst, which speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction. In this process, sulfuric acid is used as the catalyst, which can cause problems. 

“Sulfuric acid leaves behind traces of sulfur in the lignin,” Mark said. “This sulfur contaminant negatively affects another catalyst used in converting the extracted lignin to valuable products.”

Mark has  used two possible solutions to overcome this problem. 

“I’ve provided some mitigation measures to overcome this sulfur contaminant, such as conducting the reductive catalytic fractionation process in two stages, rather than one,” she said. “The first stage removes much of the sulfur from the lignin, such that the catalyst used in the second stage is able to make more of the targeted products.”

“Or, instead of using sulfuric acid, we plan to use other types of mineral acids that do not contain sulfur to extract the lignin — thereby avoiding this contaminant.”

Mark’s research is tied deeply to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For example, using corncobs rather than kernels allows more edible components of foods to go toward solving hunger, which aligns with goal No. 2 . Additionally, the CEBC partners with industry groups and individual companies, such as Midwest-based Archer Daniels Midland, a global leader in agricultural processing technologies, to further the research conducted by KU researchers like Mark. For example, ADM scientists provide feedback on Mark’s results, which is useful to guide her research toward finding practical solutions. This addresses UN goal No. 9, to build resilient industry, innovation and infrastructure.  

Finally, UN goal No. 17 calls for global partnerships to achieve sustainable development goals. 

“In the Caribbean region, where I’m from, we experience the harsh effects of climate change,” Mark said. “So there’s a call and a need to decrease our dependence on petroleum-based products.” 

“In order to reach that point, I think we need to get all stakeholders involved to understand the problem and seek solutions because, as scientists, we cannot get to net zero on our own.”