NSF awards maximum support to Iowa State-based Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has added three years and $8.48 million to the grant supporting the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State University.

That brings NSF’s total funding of the center (known as CBiRC, “See-burk”) to the maximum allowed: 10 years and $35.26 million. NSF support of the center began in September 2008 and will end in August 2018. After that, the center must be self-supporting.

Iowa State's Basil Nikolau and Brent Shanks

Basil Nikolau, the center’s deputy director and Iowa State’s Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, said the center was built on a vision of biologists and biochemists working with engineers to solve common problems. The joint efforts have opened up new catalysts and technologies for the production of biorenewable chemicals.

That has helped CBiRC quickly establish a legacy of innovation in research, technology-led entrepreneurship and education, said Brent Shanks, the center’s director and an Iowa State Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering.

 

Modified bacteria turn waste into fat for fuel

“Green” chemistry developed at Rice University is at the center of a new government effort to turn plant waste into fatty acids, and then into fuel. The Rice lab of bioengineer Ka-Yiu San is part of a recently announced $25 million United States Department of Agriculture project to develop a new generation of renewable energy and bio-based products from switchgrass and forestry residues and from a new hybrid of sorghum being developed at Texas A&M University.

Read the February 28 Rice University News and Media article for more.

Wurtele receives Iowa’s Women of Innovation Award

CBiRC faculty affiliate, Eve Syrkin Wurtele, was awarded the Woman of Innovation award for Research Innovation and Leadership by the Technology Association of Iowa (TAI) at their fifth annual DuPont Pioneer Iowa Women of Innovation event held on November 15, 2012 in Des Moines. This is the second consecutive year Dr. Wurtele was a finalist for this award.

Nominations were submitted for women from communities across the state. Finalists represent a range of backgrounds: teachers, researchers, technologists, vice-presidents, presidents, CIOs, and CEOs, among other titles. They include scholarship winners and providers. Many nominees are nationally and internationally recognized through various publications, panels, and media outlets. They all represent excellence in innovation and leadership. Finalists also include high school, undergraduate and graduate students who have demonstrated extraordinary and unique achievements in technology.

The TAI is the premier professional organization accelerating the success of Iowa’s technology industry and tech-based economy. Read the full story.

CBiRC research featured in recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News

Suitable catalysts for converting biomass to chemicals and fuels at low cost are not generally available today. A lot of petrochemical refining catalysts could do the job—but biomass refining conditions destroy them. Researchers have now found a way around this problem, by enhancing the stability and durability of the supports on which catalytic metals are dispersed.

Read the December 3 Chemical & Engineering News article for more.

NSF adds three years with $12 million in funding

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has added $12 million and another three years of support to the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State University. The continuing support brings federal investment in the center up to $30.5 million over eight years. The center’s vision is to transform the industrial chemical industry from one based on petroleum to one based on biorenewable resources.

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.

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.”

Governor Branstad Visits CBiRC

Professor Jackie Shanks shares her research with Governor Terry Branstad – Oct. 2011

Following the groundbreaking ceremony for phase two of Iowa State University’s Biorenewables Research Complex, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, State Representative Linda Upmeyer, Craig Lang, president of the Board of Regents and Bruce Rastetter, president pro tem of the Board of Regents toured the Biorenewables Research Laboratory.

CBiRC Administrative Offices Closed 12/23 through 1/2/2012

ANNOUNCEMENT:  CBiRC’s administrative offices will be closed  December 23, 2011, through January 2, 2012, in observance of Iowa State University’s official holidays and partial semester break closing.  During this time, deliveries by overnight courier will be suspended, and the 1140 BRL office suite at Iowa State University will remain locked.  Research groups housed in the building should plan accordingly.  Thank you, and happy holidays!

Jim Dumesic to receive NACS Award in March

The North American Catalysis Society congratulates three of our members that have been recognized with significant American Chemical Society National Awards for 2012. The award recipients are Dr. Thomas F. Degnan Jr, ExxonMobil, Professor James A. Dumesic University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Professor Enrique Iglesia, University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Degnan has been named as winner of the 2012 ACS Award in Industrial Chemistry sponsored by the ACS Division of Business Development & Management and the ACS Division of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. Professor Dumesic has been named winner of the 2012 George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry sponsored by the George A. Olah Award Endowment. Professor Iglesia has been named winner of the 2012 Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis sponsored by the Gabor A. and Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund. All three recipients will be honored at an Awards Ceremony on March 27, 2012 held in conjunction with the 243rd ACS National Meeting in San Diego, CA.

Three with engineering ties win Women of Innovation Award

On November 11, 2010, the Technology Association of Iowa honored 46 women leaders from across the state and awarded 10 professionals, academicians, and students with Women of Innovation awards. Julie Dickerson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Nicola Pohl, professor of chemistry and chemical and biological engineering; and Emma White, PhD student in materials science and engineering, were among the winners.
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Do you know?

You recognize these products, but do you know where they come from?
Polymers, Paints, Coatings, Resins, Industrial Chemicals, Packaging, Bottles, Containers, Inks, Dyes, Adhesives, Sealants, Construction Chemicals, Surfactants, Cleaning Agents, Specialty Chemicals, Food additives, Flavorings, Fragrances, Cosmetics….

The answer is….
Most of the world’s fuels and carbon-based chemicals are sourced from fossil carbon, with a relatively minor contribution (10%) from biorenewable sources.