Liao, who is chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, is one of 84 new members, including two others from UCLA, elected for their “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.” Liao was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor for engineers in the United States, in 2013.
“Jim has made pioneering contributions at the nexus of engineering, chemistry and biology. He is truly deserving of this most prestigious of honors and we are very proud of him,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering.
Liao’s research focuses on understanding fundamental scientific principles of synthetic biology and metabolism, then using that knowledge to solve problems in the production of fuels and chemicals, and in the treatment of metabolic diseases.
“I am really humbled and honored,” Liao said today, noting that a colleague attending the National Academy of Sciences meeting in Washington called him with the news early this morning. “This recognition would not be possible without the talent and dedication of my current and former students and post-doctoral researchers, my UCLA colleagues and the support of the university.”
Liao, who also has faculty appointments in the UCLA departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Bioengineering, has received much acclaim for his work developing more efficient biofuels. He has synthesized bacteria to both consume carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas, and produce the liquid fuel isobutanol. In essence, he and his team turned exhaust into fuel in a series of biochemical reactions powered directly by sunlight.
He has also developed a way to turn electricity into liquid fuel, as well as a method for converting waste proteins into fuel. His techniques can be used to address obesity by increasing metabolism rates — research that showed successful results in mice.
Liao’s honors include the 2014 National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science, which is awarded once every three years; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Presidential Green Chemistry Award; a Champion of Change award from the White House; the ENI Prize from the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in Milan; the James E. Bailey Award from the Society for Biological Engineering; the Marvin Johnson Award from the American Chemical Society; the Charles Thom Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology; the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Division Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and the Merck Award for Metabolic Engineering. Liao is also a member of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.
He has been a UCLA Engineering faculty member since 1997.