The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is doubling down on energy research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, funding a multi-million dollar Bioenergy Research Center to provide scientific breakthroughs for a new generation of sustainable, cost-effective biofuels and bioproducts.
The DOE announced the $115 million Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), pending Congressional appropriation, a collaboration between Illinois’ Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). CABBI includes 16 partner institutions. Evan H. DeLucia, the G. William Arends Professor of Plant Biology and Baum Family Director of iSEE, will serve as CABBI Director.
“As the United States seeks energy independence, we need to look at the most efficient ways to grow, transform, and market biofuels,” DeLucia said. “This grant is a game-changer, and CABBI will be at the forefront as we press toward a new bio-based economy. Our Center’s holistic approach will generate new products directly from biomass, reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and making us more secure.”
One of the major challenges the world faces is how to provide sustainable sources of energy that meet societal needs as the population continues to grow. DeLucia said Illinois is uniquely qualified to address the challenge with a world-class facility at IGB, which will oversee and integrate CABBI’s core science team under one roof.
Said IGB Director Gene E. Robinson: “The IGB, now with over a decade of experience in successfully addressing grand challenges by transdisciplinary integration of the life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and engineering, will provide an outstanding environment for the talented CABBI team. We are delighted to partner with iSEE to lead this important new Center.”
DeLucia said iSEE will coordinate and integrate field work off campus and at the Illinois Energy Farm — “a globally unique, 320-acre site that enables researchers to trial promising biofuel feedstocks at scale.
“And we will use another state-of-the-art facility of national importance: the nearly complete, $32 million Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL), which is a direct result of state investment in the future of bioenergy research.”
CABBI researchers will develop fuels and products by integrating three highly interconnected DOE priority areas:
- GROWING THE RIGHT CROPS (Feedstock Development) — Led by Stephen Moose, Professor of Crop Sciences at Illinois, scientists will integrate recent advances in genomics, synthetic biology, and computational biology to increase the value of biomass crops. Feedstock researchers will use the “plants as factories” paradigm, in which biofuels, bioproducts, and foundation molecules for conversion are synthesized directly in plant stems.
- TURNING PLANTS INTO FUEL (Conversion) — Led by Huimin Zhao, Steven L. Miller Chair in Chemical Engineering at Illinois, experts will further develop a versatile, automated “biofoundry” for rapidly engineering microbial strains that can efficiently produce diverse, high-value molecules such as biodiesel, organic acids, jet fuels, lubricants, and alcohols. Using the design-build-test-learn framework, research in the Conversion theme will overcome the challenges associated with driving biological systems to produce non-natural compounds.
- DETERMINING THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC BOTTOM LINE (Sustainability) — Led by Madhu Khanna, ACES Distinguished Professor in Environmental Economics in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at Illinois, researchers will provide an overarching framework for viewing outcomes from the Feedstocks and Conversion themes through an environmental and economic lens. Experts will design a closed-loop and integrated research program for CABBI.
“We look forward to a day when we will have sustainable and economically sound production of fuels and chemicals from plants,” DeLucia said. “A vibrant bioeconomy based on plant products will enhance the economic and ecological resilience of U.S. agriculture.”
The Feedstocks theme will be at the cutting edge of bioenergy crop production, said Kimberlee K. Kidwell, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois, which is providing significant field space, lab space, and researchers for CABBI.
“We have truly set our sights on the future of agriculture, from the genomic level to crops in the field to final products that will play a significant role in our nation’s energy profile,” Kidwell said.
Peter Schiffer, Vice Chancellor for Research at Illinois, noted that iSEE was founded to facilitate exactly these kinds of interdisciplinary research projects.
“We are deliberately building the infrastructure that will enable our researchers to do what they do best: solve complex problems that cross disciplinary boundaries,” he said. “iSEE was launched to conduct actionable research that addresses some of the biggest challenges in energy and the environment, and the CABBI team is noteworthy for its strengths in agriculture, engineering, genomics, biology, chemistry, economics, and more.”
Partner institutions include Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Joint Genome Institute in Berkeley, Calif; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, La., and Peoria, Ill.; Iowa State University; Princeton University; Mississippi State University; the University of California-Berkeley; West Virginia University; Boston University; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Colorado State University; the University of Idaho; the University of Florida; the University of Nebraska; the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle; and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala.
Illinois has been one of the DOE’s top six funding partners over the last five years. Pending Congressional appropriation, CABBI will receive $15 million in fiscal year 2018, then $25 million a year in 2019-22. The Center is one of four DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs), joining the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center led by the University of Wisconsin, the Center for Bioenergy Innovation led by the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Joint Bioenergy Institute led by the DOE’s Berkeley National Lab.
“The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers the strong leadership and research capabilities to help the Department of Energy foster the production of specialty biofuels and other bioproducts from plants to support a more bio-based economy,” said U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “Federal investment in projects like this increases our energy security and grows our economy.”
Said U.S. Rep. Rodney L. Davis, R-Ill.: “Agriculture research like that done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is important to the future of farming and feeding the world. I’m excited about this grant and the new research and developments it will lead to. As Chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Research and the Co-chair of the Congressional Agricultural Research Caucus, I continue to work with the University of Illinois to ensure agriculture research is a national priority.”
The BRC Program was established in 2007 and has led to 2,630 peer-reviewed publications, 607 invention disclosures, 378 patent applications, 191 licenses or options, 92 patents, and 14 start-up companies. Learn more at science.energy.gov.