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NSF adds three years, $12 million to ISU-based Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

Engineers and scientists are working together in new ways to invent catalysts that lead to industrial chemicals from biorenewable resources.

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AMES, Iowa – Engineers and scientists are working together in new ways to invent catalysts that lead to industrial chemicals from biorenewable resources. Industrial partnerships are expanding. Startup companies are launching. Education partnerships are reaching teachers and students. And an international reputation is growing.

They’re all steps the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State University has made over its initial four years. That progress has led to the NSF augmenting the center (known as CBiRC, “See-burk”) with three additional years and $12 million.

Iowa State University
The NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State University has built a large and interdisciplinary research team. CBiRC  

That brings the total federal investment in the center through the NSF’s Engineering Research Center program up to $30.5 million over eight years. The center can still be renewed for an additional two years, potentially bringing the NSF’s total support to 10 years and $34.9 million. After 10 years, CBiRC will transition to a self-supporting research center. In addition to the center’s base funding, it has so far garnered more than $14 million in other support.

“In four years we’ve certainly come together as a center and we have a shared vision across all the researchers,” said Brent Shanks, the center’s director and the Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Iowa State. “We are accomplishing what the NSF wanted – interdisciplinary research.”

The center’s vision is to transform the industrial chemical industry – a $400 billion-a-year business in the United States – from one based on petroleum to one based on biorenewable resources. To do that, the center has asked researchers who study chemical or biological catalysts to start working together to develop new and sustainable technologies that produce the industrial chemicals used in everything from building materials to personal-care products.

Basil Nikolau, the center’s deputy director and the Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology at Iowa State, said the center’s interdisciplinary approach is attracting the attention of industry.

“We are making progress and a measure of that is the companies that have joined us,” Nikolau said. “We’re setting a new paradigm for this research. We’re doing basic research that companies are buying into.”

When the center was established, it had six industrial partners. The center now has 27 (including Ashland, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., DuPont, Grain Processing Corp., Michelin Americas Research Co., and POET) and is discussing additional partnerships. The center is also spinning off four companies in Iowa and three from partner institutions. The Iowa startups include Glucan Biorenewables LLC, originally established by Shanks; Peter Keeling, the center’s industrial collaboration and innovation consultant; and James Dumesic, the Steenbock Professor and Michel Boudart Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The center has also attracted attention from funding agencies and the science media:

  • Earlier this year, Nikolau, Keeling and Shivani Garg – a graduate student in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology – won an Innovation Corps grant from the NSF. The grant will support their work to develop bio-based chemical feedstocks.
  • And, the CBiRC way – combining chemical and biological technologies to produce biorenewable chemicals – was recently featured in Chemical & Engineering News. The story by Mitch Jacoby notes that “coupling chemical and biological processing offers advantages over either one on its own.”

In addition to those developments, the leaders of the center’s three research thrusts said they’re seeing many signs of technical progress:

Thrust one, new biocatalysts for pathway engineering

Joseph Noel – professor and director of the Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute based in Chevy Chase, Md. – said the program has identified pyrones as molecules for the center’s testbed research across disciplines. He said researchers have developed protein engineering techniques to improve the production of biorenewable molecules from sugar by common baker’s yeast. Chemical catalysts then convert the molecules to commodity chemicals. Noel said the research program has also successfully integrated high school and undergraduate students in its laboratories.

Thrust two, microbial metabolic engineering

Jackie Shanks, the Manley Hoppe Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Iowa State, said researchers have used E. coli to produce carboxylic acids at the highest level reported to date. Carboxylic acids can be used to produce many industrial chemicals. She said researchers have also improved E. coli’s ability to resist the toxicity of the acids.

Thrust three, chemical catalyst design

Robert Davis, the Earnest Jackson Oglesby Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said researchers have made significant progress converting pyrones from research thrusts one and two to high-value chemicals. He said researchers have also developed technologies that convert carboxylic acids to alpha olefins that are used to make detergents and other chemicals.

Brent Shanks said the center has established several education initiatives, including a graduate minor in biorenewable chemicals at Iowa State, research internships at the center’s European partners, a summer research program for undergraduates, research experiences and workshops for school teachers and a program that places graduate students in middle school science classrooms.

All in all, Shanks said the center’s work is getting noticed and its researchers are taking calls from industry, technical conferences and the biorenewable research community.

“It is our driving goal,” he said, “to be considered the place in the world to do biorenewable chemicals.”