Linda Benedict, Blanchard, Tobie M.
Vadim Kochergin is improving the way sugar is processed in Louisiana. The LSU AgCenter professor was trained as a chemical engineer in Moscow, Russia, and has used that knowledge to solve problems for the sugarcane industry.
“You have to question things,” Kochergin said.
Questioning how his life may be better led Kochergin to leave behind his native Russia 1991 and come to the United States, where his mother already was a citizen.
“I told my mom I don’t want to come with all my training and wash cars in the U.S.,” he said. His mother, who also had a Ph.D. when she came to the United States in 1980, worked at a grocery store while learning English. “She told me there is nothing wrong with that as long as that is not your goal in life,” he said.
Kochergin never had to wash cars or bag groceries. Shortly after coming to America, he got a job as a project leader for a research company in Idaho’s sugar beet industry.
He had worked doing research and development on synthetic vitamins in Russia, so the transition to a different industry in a new country was a challenge.
“It was a steep learning curve but a very interesting experience.”
Six years ago he took the knowledge he gained working with sugar processing in Idaho to the LSU AgCenter.
Kochergin specializes in solid-liquid separation, an important step in sugar refining because the dirt and plant residue must be removed from the sugarcane juice.
He patented a turbulence reduction device that helps solids settle out of the sugarcane juice more efficiently, resulting in less sucrose loss and cost and energy savings. The clarifier is being used in several sugar mills, but he continues to improve it.
Kochergin has developed and patented technologies that when applied commercially in the sugar and pharmaceutical industries have resulted in multimillion dollar revenues. He also serves as the director of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing, which is working toward turning agricultural crops such as energy cane and sweet sorghum into fuels and chemicals.
As a child Kochergin couldn’t have envisioned the work he does and the life he has now.
“We weren’t allowed to cross the border, so that would have been a weird dream,” he said with a laugh.
But he was surrounded by academics. His father also was a professor in chemical engineering, and his mother’s Ph.D. was in electrochemistry. He said he had great professors at Mendeleev University in Moscow, who taught him to look at things differently. He tries to teach the same lessons to his graduate students.
“You have to keep questioning things, and then that raises other questions, and then you start answering, and you use the best of your knowledge and find the partners that can help you, and all of a sudden something’s happened.”
After 21 years working in the sugar industry, he still feels passion for what he is doing. “It’s unfortunate because it takes a lot of weekends and time,” he said.
Tobie Blanchard is an associate communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)