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Passion for research yields amazing find

chemistry_main1Brian Krohn originally came to Augsburg to study film, but after only one semester without any science classes, this lifelong scientist felt “so deprived” that he officially changed his major to chemistry.

Growing up in Cloquet, Minnesota, Brian was always working on random projects — an electromagnet, a go-cart, various potato cannons, numerous attempts at tree forts, a lamp made from a car headlight, and a 15′ tall trebuchet. He even built a banjo from a mail-order kit. “I didn’t want to waste the money on buying a banjo, because I am musically inept, but I wanted to learn how to play one,” he said. He learned a couple of songs, but ultimately his interest in the banjo waned.

Though chemistry was his area of study, he was unsure where the degree would lead him. “I thought with a degree in chemistry, I could only be a teacher or a pharmacist,” he said. Then in the summer of 2006, Brian received a grant to do research, one of his passions, from Augsburg’s Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity (URGO) program. He and his adviser, chemistry professor Arlin Gyberg, were both interested in biodiesel, so Brian set out to find a more efficient way to produce the fuel.

Brian describes the research process as difficult but exciting. “You have to really dig into the whole process and read all the literature to join in the conversation about your topic before you can figure out what you can contribute,” he said. Whereas most undergraduate researchers “do what they are told, like calibrate a machine all day” according to Brian, he had more freedom to explore and experiment.

Brian says it was his research and connections through Augsburg, not the discovery itself, that opened doors for him. In fact, he said this opportunity might never have been available if not for McNeff’s tie to the College. “It’s almost unheard of that the vice president of research would sit down with his former professor and an undergraduate student,” he said.

The future holds many possibilities for this talented Auggie. Brian will present his research to legislators in Washington, D.C. for the annual “Posters on the Hill” program, and he was awarded the prestigious Goldwater scholarship for students who show promise in science and plan to pursue PhDs. But before he starts graduate school, Brian has plans to explore the world by studying abroad and doing service work.

On March 7, 2008, a press conference was held to announce Brian’s biodielsel discovery. The biodiesel press conference garnered attention in local and even international media.

Eventually his work led to the discovery of a process that converts animal feedstock to biodeiesel. Gyberg advised Brian to contact alumnus Clayton McNeff ’91, a chemist and vice president of SarTec, a company specializing in yucca-based products. McNeff, his chief scientist Ben Yan, and Gyberg took Brian’s idea and created the “Mcgyan process,” an efficient and environmentally friendly method that will allow McNeff’s company to produce more than 3 million gallons of fuel per year.