Zhang receives NASA early-career faculty award

Fuzhong Zhang, PhD, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has received an Early Career Faculty award from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Fuzhong Zhang

The award provides the researchers with up to $200,000 per year for up to three years for outstanding faculty who research technologies that are high priorities for NASA missions. In addition, the funds will speed development of technologies developed by university researchers that support future needs of NASA, other government agencies and businesses involved in space exploration. Zhang's project was one of eight selected to receive funding.

It is the latest in a series of early faculty or young investigator awards for Zhang over the past year. Zhang has received similar awards from the U.S. Navy, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, and from the Human Frontier Science Program Organization.

For NASA, Zhang seeks to develop a cyanobacterium-based synthetic biology platform that converts carbon dioxide to lightweight, high-performance materials for critical applications in future NASA space exploration missions.

"Future space exploration demands developing highly efficient technologies to recycle readily available resources, for example, in situ resource utilization (ISRU), for the sustainable production of indispensable supplies," Zhang says. "Recent development in synthetic biology has enabled controllable cellular behavior and novel metabolic functionalities, leading engineered cells to perform naturally unachievable tasks. The ability to generate these materials by ISRU would reduce the need for resupply missions and decrease launch weights, increasing the feasibility of long-distance missions and extraterrestrial colonization."

NASA is looking at the capabilities of synthetic biology and ISRU to create new technological advances that can be integrated into future exploration missions, architecture and designs to make these missions more cost-effective and sustainable.

NASA's Early Career Faculty awards are given to proposals for unique, disruptive or transformational space technologies that look at challenges in solar cell operations at high temperatures, atmospheric entry model development, synthetic biology applications for space exploration and dynamic tensegrity-based space structures.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.