UNB Alumni
Telling our #ProudlyUNB stories

Kimberley Clarke is creating solutions for sustainable agriculture

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Mar 6, 2023

Category: Inspiring Stories , Engineering , UNB Fredericton

One of the most pressing challenges in our world today is building a sustainable agriculture industry that will feed a growing population with nutritious food while not harming the environment with toxic chemicals, soil quality depletion, and over-consumption of water and non-renewable energy. The UN estimates that the world population will grow to 9 billion by 2050. To meet this demand, farmers will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than they did in the last 10,000 combined.

So when Kimberley Clarke (PhD’15), a UNB chemical engineering alumna, was offered a position in the BioAg division of Novozymes in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, she jumped at the chance to be a part of developing a solution.

Biological agriculture systems incorporate the natural functions of soil and plant biology in providing efficiency in soil, pasture and crop fertility programs. The company’s research and development uses microbes and enzymes to boost crop productivity while saving energy, water and raw materials and reducing waste and emissions. Microbes typically have symbiotic relationships with plants, making both the plant and the microbe populations healthier and more efficient in taking up nutrients, increasing growth, and protecting against drought, pests, and fungi mold. Enzymes are natural proteins that act as catalysts to speed up the process of transforming one substance to another. Farmers can use enzymes as catalysts to also improve yields through absorption of more nutrients. But microbes or enzymes will die when they are taken out of their natural habitat, so Kimberley’s work is focused on stabilizing microbes in the laboratory, on-shelf (warehouses, retail) and on-seed to be effective in the field. She says she’s “proud of her work and the company she works for because we’re focused on finding solutions that are good for the environment, not ones that add more chemicals to it.”

Kimberley first connected with Novozymes through her doctoral research work at UNB - the company supplied the enzymes for the lab. She came to UNB from her home in Newfoundland after completing a biochemistry degree at Memorial University. She had originally thought she would study medicine, but found that she developed a passion for the biotech side of science; she had a keen interest in understanding how things worked in our environment. That’s why she chose process engineering at UNB, and ended up focusing her research on using enzymatic hydrolysis to convert biomass such as wood into biofuel, namely ethanol.  Known as second-generation biofuels, the biomass must go through a process of converting its lignocellulose material, by which the cellulose component must be first hydrolyzed into glucose in order to be converted into alcohol by fermentation. Second generation biofuels have many benefits over first generation (those converted directly from glucose-rich sources such as corn or sugar cane): they do not compete with food, there is a higher density of fuel/volume (requires significantly less land to produce the same amount of energy), and is overall a more green process. “The main source of fuel utilized today is still oil and gas,” Kimberley says. “But alternative, sustainable sources are necessary to stop the deterioration of the environment. Currently, most ethanol production is still first generation, but second generation is being produced and is continuing to grow. It’s one more source that can help reduce our dependency on oil and gas.”

Kimberley transferred from academia to industry in search of a faster pace and access to resources. She found it in the BioAg industry in North Carolina, an area that’s seen an influx of people working in biotech. “Working in this field, I use the technical and analytical skills I learned at UNB on a day to day basis, but I also use soft skills as part of collaborating with others. It’s exciting to develop solutions that give farmers new ways to produce more without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It’s a fulfilling career that I truly enjoy.”