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Percival Zhang

Associate Professor


Ph.D., Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Dartmouth College, 2002

M.S., Biochemical Engineering, East China University of Science and Technology, 1996

B.S., Biochemical Engineering, East China University of Science and Technology, 1993


June 2010 - present – Associate Professor, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech

Aug 2005 - June 2010 – Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech

May 2004 - Aug 2005 – Research Scientist, Dartmouth College

May 2002 - May 2004 – Postdoc Research Associate, Dartmouth College

Selected Major Awards

  • 2011 - College of Engineering Faculty Fellow Award (Virginia Tech)
  • 2010 - Daniel I.C. Wang Award (Biotechnology and Bioengineering and ACS BIOT)
  • 2009 - Sunkist Engineering Designer Award (ASABE)
  • 2008 - British Petroleum Young Scientists Award (IBS 2008)
  • 2008 - DuPont Young Faculty Award
  • 2008 - College of Engineering Outstanding New Faculty Award (Virginia Tech)
  • 2008 - Air Force Young Investigator Award (Air Force Of Scientific Research, AFOSR)
  • 2007 - American Chemical Society PRF New Faculty Award
  • 2006 - Best and Brightest of Esquire Magazine (science and technology and crazy idea)
  • 2006 - Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award
  • 2004 - 1st Class Award for Advancement of Science & Technology (Ministry of Education, China)

Courses Taught Last Five Years

  • BSE 3524 - Unit Operations In Biological Systems
  • BSE 5944 - Graduate Seminar
  • BSE 5624 - Enzyme engineering

Other Teaching and Advising

I am a member of the BSE graduate committee and  co-chair of BSE Public & Alumni Relations (Publications) Committee (2011-present).

I wish to suggest constructing the electricity-carbohydrate-hydrogen (ECHo) cycle, as shown below, could meet four basic needs of humans: air, water, food and energy, while minimizing environmental footprints. In it, electricity is a universal high-quality energy carrier; hydrogen is a clear electricity carrier; and carbohydrate is a hydrogen carrier, an electricity storage compound and sources for food, feed and materials. By using this cycle, we could replace crude oil with carbohydrates (CH2O), feed the world, power cellular phone, produce renewable materials, etc.
    ECHo Cycle

Program Focus

We conduct our research project based on two platforms: cascade enzyme factories and microbial cell factories (e.g., E. coli and Bacillus subtilis). Based on cascade enzyme factories, our specific projects are

  1. Sweet hydrogen and sugar fuel cell vehicles.  To break the Thauer limit for natural hydrogen-producing microorganisms, we have achieved the production of theoretical yield hydrogen from hexose (i.e., 12 H2 per glucose unit). Via it, we propose the use of sugar as a hydrogen carrier. The hypothetical sugar fuel cell vehicles would be the most energy efficiency vehicles. A small fraction of the USA biomass could be sufficient to replace all gasoline.
  2. High-power and high-energy density enzymatic fuel cells (i.e., bioinspired sugar battery).  To increase fuel utilization efficiency, we have designed the pathways that can produce 24 electrons per glucose for the first time.
  3. Artificial photosynthesis for CO2 utilization.  To surpass natural limits of plant photosynthesis, we propose a new system by integrating solar cell, water electrolysis and CO2 fixation with 20-50 higher energy utilization efficiency and 500-1000 fold higher water conservation.  
  4. Enzymatic synthesis of renewable materials.  

By utilizing microbial cell factories, our specific projects include

  1. Cellulase engineering and recombinant cellulolytic Bacillus subtilis.  
  2. Enzyme engineering by rational design and directed evolution. We are developing redox enzymes that can work on low-cost biomimics.
  3. Low-cost recombinant protein production and purification as building blocks for cascade enzyme factories.

Current Projects

  • “Construction of cellulosomes and their model”  -- this multidisciplinary project funded by DOE BioEnergy Science Center.  My research topics are construct synthetic cellulosomes that can hydrolyze cellulose efficiently and develop models elucidating complicated relationship among heterogeneous substrate and different action mode cellulase components.
  • “Proof-of-concept of sweet hydrogen” – is funded by Shell Game Changer Program. At phase I, we are engineering two redox enzymes working on biomimic cofactors and increasing hydrogen generation rates by 10 fold.
  • “Synthetic Crop for Direct Biofuel Production through Rerouting the Photosynthesis Intermediates and Engineering Terpenoid Pathways”  -- this multidisciplinary project funded by DOE ARPA-E Petro.  My work helped construct synthetic metabolons in the production of terpenoid for engineered plants and redirect metabolic fluxes.
  • “High-power enzymatic fuel cell” was funded by AFOSR MURI.  Now we are funded by CALS BBRC and develop the prototype before commercialization.

Selected Recent Publications

(* undergraduate student, ** graduate student, *** post-doc)

  • You** C, X-Y Zhang, N Sathitsuksanoh** , LR Lynd, Y-HP Zhang.  2012.  Simple Cloning: direct transformation of PCR product (DNA multimer) to Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis. Applied and Environmental Microbiology Epub, DOI:10.1128/AEM.07105-11
  • Zhang Y-HP. 2011. What is vital (and not vital) to advance economically-competitive biofuels production.  Process Biochemistry 46: 2091-2110 (Invited opinion review). Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP. 2011. Substrate channeling and enzyme complexes for biotechnological applications. Biotechnology Advances 29: 715-725. Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP. 2011. Simpler is better: high-yield and potential low-cost biofuels production through cell-free synthetic pathway biotransformation (SyPaB). ACS Catalysis 1: 998-1009 (Invited perspective). Link to Publication
  • Zhang XZ, ZG Zhu **, N Sathitsuksanoh**, Y-HP Zhang. 2011.  One-step production of lactate from cellulose as sole carbon source without any other organic nutrient by recombinant cellulolytic Bacillus subtilis.  Metabolic Engineering 13:364-372.  
  • Wang*** YR, WD Huang **, N Sathisuksanoh**, ZG Zhu**, Y-HP Zhang. 2011. Biohydrogenation from biomass sugar mediated by cell-free synthetic pathway biotransformation. Chemistry and Biology 18: 372-380 (Featured article). Link to Publication
  • Rollin** J, ZG Zhu **, N Sathisuksanoh**, Y-HP Zhang. 2011. Increasing substrate accessibility is more important than removing lignin: A comparison of cellulose solvent-based lignocellulose fractionation and soaking in aqueous ammonia. Biotechnology and Bioengineering 108: 22-30. Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP. 2010.  Production of biocommodities and bioelectricity by cell-free synthetic enzymatic pathway biotransformations: Challenges and opportunities. Biotechnology and Bioengineering 105:663-677. Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP. 2009.  A sweet out-of-the-box solution to the hydrogen economy: Is sugar-powered car science fiction? Energy and Environmental Science 2: 272-282 (invited perspective). Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP, BR Evans, JR Mielenz, RC Hopkins, MWW Adams. 2007. High-yield hydrogen production from starch and water by synthetic enzymatic pathway.  PLoS ONE 2(5): e456. Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP, S-Y Ding, JR Mielenz, J Cui, RT Elander, M Laser, ME Himmel, JD McMillan, LR Lynd. 2007. Fractionating recalcitrant lignocellulose at modest reaction conditions.  Biotechnology and Bioengineering 97(2): 214-223. (Accelerated publication, #1 cited paper in 2007). Link to Publication
  • Zhang Y-HP, ME Himmel, JR Mielenz. 2006. Outlook for cellulase improvement: Screening and selection strategies. Biotechnology Advances 24(5): 452-481. (#1 most cited paper, year 2006). Link to Publication

12 selected publications from 70+ publications in the past five years, the whole list is available at my website.

Selected Recent Funding

  • BioEnergy Science Center – Construction of cellulosomes and their model, PI, Y-HP Zhang, $1,000,000, DOE, 09/2007-06/2012
  • “Accelerating the Rate-Limiting Step of Novel Enzymatic Hydrogen Production by Enzyme Engineering”, PI,  Y-HP Zhang, $352,538, AFOSR, 03/2008-06/2011
  • “MURI – Bioengineering fuel cells”, Co-PI, Y-HP Zhang, $273,310, AFOSR, 03/2009-06/2011
  • “Proof-of-concept of sweet hydrogen”, PI, Y-HP Zhang, $450,000, Shell Game Changer, 12/2011-11/2012
  • “Synthetic Crop for Direct Biofuel Production through Rerouting the Photosynthesis Intermediates and Engineering Terpenoid Pathways”, Co-PI, Y-HP Zhang, $112,291, DOE ARPA-E Petro, 02/2012-07/2013.
    Percival Zhang