MSU researchers think ‘outside the block’, win big in MDA V-Quad competition


Mississippi Development Authority officials present MSU’s Jilei Zhang with a check following the inaugural “Pitch in the V-Quad” competition. Pictured, left to right, Bill Ashley, director of business research and workforce development at MDA; MDA Director of Energy and Natural Resources Sumesh Arora; MSU Warren S. Thompson Professor of Wood Science and Technology Jilei Zhang; and Joe Donovan, Director of Tech Innovation and Entrepreneurship at MDA (Photo courtesy of MDA)

Contact: Vanessa Beeson

STARKVILLE, Miss — For a team of researchers in the State of Mississippi, the design of concrete is not set in stone.

Jilei Zhang, Warren S. Thompson Professor of Wood Science and Technology, and a team of researchers from MSU’s Sustainable Bioproducts Department redesigned the material design and cemented their product’s status by participating in the inaugural V-Quad Competition of the Mississippi Development Authority, a US Department of Energy initiative to spur innovation in the state’s energy and agriculture sectors. Last month, Zhang’s team won $ 7,500 in the “Pitch in the V-Quad” competition with its patented technology using bio-based waste to produce graphene for concrete production.

The team’s earnings, supported by the DoE’s Energy Program Award for Innovation Hubs, will be used for the team to perform an industrial-scale trial with a Columbus-based masonry manufacturer to perform the commercial use, testing and certification of the product.

The catalytic thermal conversion process produces graphene from biomass using the original polymeric lignin as a carbon source. The technology avoids the use of harsh chemicals and can potentially reduce the use of cement in concrete production by up to 20%. Cement production alone contributes 8% of global carbon emissions each year. The technology significantly reduces production costs, improves strength and reduces the material’s carbon footprint.

“The idea is to reduce the consumption of cement in concrete while maintaining or improving its strength. By replacing some of the cement with graphene, we can save money while reducing the carbon footprint. We use graphene, an advanced high-tech material, to solve a traditional problem. Meanwhile, we use traditional materials – biomass waste from the paper industry – to create the high-tech material. We are recovering the waste, reducing what would be traditional graphene mining and solving the problem of environmentally intensive concrete production, ”said Zhang.

The team received a $ 5,000 Business Development Grant for Stage 1 this spring as well as access to a 10-week V-Quad Accelerator training course, while MDA provided a mentoring and market analysis while the team completed a business development report. The initial grant helped researchers validate the technology in a lab trial.

Sumesh Arora, director of MDA’s Energy and Natural Resources division and co-leader of the V-Quad team, said the program encourages collaboration between research universities like MSU and the public and private sectors.

“V-Quad is a unique opportunity for Mississippi to link our existing assets and create a cohesive network of exemplary stakeholders from our research universities and the public and private sectors. We are delighted that MDA is leading this effort to encourage the development of new technologies in energy and agriculture. Dr. Zhang’s technology can help meet the needs of industry on a global scale by using waste to improve the material properties of concrete production, while reducing its environmental impact, ”he said.

Jeremy Clay, director of the MSU Office of Technology Management, brought Zhang’s attention to the V-Quad opportunity and is excited to see how the second round of funding will further develop the technology.

“The proof of concept with a commercial supplier is the gold standard, and if all goes well, the patented technology is ready for commercialization. Currently, we are actively looking for business partners to market it, ”he said.

Clay noted that the V-Quad program is a great opportunity for MSU researchers whose technology may be close to market.

“This program helps researchers better understand the process and see if their ideas are ready to market and, if not, what it takes to get there,” he said.

In addition to Zhang, MSU researchers on the technology include Xuefang Zhang, assistant research professor, and Jason Street, associate professor, both in the Department of Sustainable Bioproducts at the Forestry and Wildlife Research Center. Collaborators include the Forest Products Laboratory of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

To find out more about the Sustainable Bioproducts Department, visit To learn more about licensing the technology, contact Jeremy Clay by email at [email protected] or call 662-325-8222.

MSU is Mississippi’s premier university, available online at

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