Work to begin this year on UI biofuels facility

Work to begin this year on UI biofuels facility

URBANA — A $23 million center to test the viability of biofuels made from miscanthus and other plants will get underway at the University of Illinois later this year, a bridge between the research laboratory and full-scale commercial production.

The state-funded Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory will be built on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, wrapping around the existing Agricultural Bioprocess Laboratory just east of the Stock Pavilion. It will be part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

An outgrowth of the UI's Center for BioEnergy Research, the lab is designed as a pilot facility to test promising biofuel technologies on a larger scale to determine if they have commercial potential, known as "proof of concept," said Hans Blaschek, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and director of the center.

"The whole idea is to take biomass of various types and convert it into biofuels and chemicals" on a scale slightly larger than a laboratory table, Blaschek said.

Faculty researching plants for biofuel - switchgrass or corn stover, for example - may show results in the laboratory but produce only a liter of fuel, he said. The new center would take it to the next level.

"Industry needs to have something that they can grab hold of, that they can see at a somewhat larger scale and evaluate at a larger scale," Blaschek said.

The new facility will have industrial affiliates - companies that pay $10,000 annually for access to the pilot plant, faculty expertise, internships for master's students, bioenergy class presentations, an online class and an annual networking conference. Two firms have already signed on: DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Novozymes.

Companies will also rent space at the new lab to test out new processes developed by UI faculty or their own researchers, Blaschek said. The building will have room for a half-dozen firms at a time, with movable, secure walls and flexible spaces to allow for quick startup, he said.

For example, he said, a company might develop a new type of switchgrass with low lignin content, which would reduce production costs because lignin is difficult to break down. The lab would evaluate how the new material compares to what's already on the market, he said.

Agricultural engineering professor Vijay Singh, who has worked to develop relationships with industry and others interested in pilot-scale "proof-of-concept" activities, said in the last year five multinational companies have completed projects at the current Center for BioEnergy Research.

Blaschek said his experience developing a startup company at the UI Research Park - TetraVitae Bioscience, an outgrowth of his lab work on biobutanol — prompted the idea for the new bioprocessing lab. While the research park was helpful, it lacked needed infrastructure such as high-pressure steam to get production up and running, he said. Blaschek sold the company last year to Eastman Chemical Co.

"We've got other faculty on campus with cool technologies that really could benefit from having a facility like this," he said.

The 43,000-square-foot building has been in the planning stages since fall 2006, said Illinois Capital Development Board spokesman Dave Blanchette. Money for the center was approved several years ago before state legislators passed a capital funding plan in 2009, the first in eight years,

"It's been on the radar screen for quite a while," he said. "We were just working through the list of projects that were awaiting funding," and projects that were more critical were addressed first, he said.

Bids for the new facility will be solicited in early fall, with ground-breaking expected in October or November, officials said. Construction is scheduled to be completed by August 2015.

The total project budget is $23.2 million, including architectural and construction costs. The facility will be built to LEED green building standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), he said.

The laboratory will include biotechnology, fermenting, corn milling and soybean processing laboratories and related equipment, Blanchette said.

Blaschek said the lab will have fermenters no larger than 300 liters, which means they would produce a few gallons of fuel. A similar facility at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, has a larger capacity, processing about 200 bushels a day.

"The whole idea for it was to be flexible. We want to be able to take all kinds of biomass and convert it," he said, including corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus, sorghum and tropical maize, Blaschek said. The lab will have "analytical capabilities that are really going to be second to none."

It will also have two classrooms and offer workshops for students in the summer months.

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