Search for sustainable fuels drives researchers at UI's new bioenergy center

Search for sustainable fuels drives researchers at UI's new bioenergy center

A Midwest crop of the future: grasses and other plants that produce their own oils to be used as fuel or byproducts.

That's the vision behind a new bioenergy research center being launched today at the University of Illinois with help from a five-year, $115 million grant from the Department of Energy, one of the largest ever received by the campus.

Scientists from multiple disciplines at the UI, where it will be headquartered, and 17 partner institutions will generate new fuel products directly from plants, reducing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, said UI Professor Evan DeLucia, who will direct the new Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation.

He calls the grant, announced last summer, a "game changer."

The new center is a collaboration between the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, where it will be housed, and the UI Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, which is directed by DeLucia, a professor of plant biology.

The money will go "100 percent to research," DeLucia said, paying for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and equipment.

The center presents a new model for bioenergy research, DeLucia said, and a big factor in winning the grant was the UI's unique infrastructure to support it.

The Institute for Genomic Biology has the capacity for cutting-edge plant genetics research. The UI's 320-acre Energy Farm in Urbana provides space to field-test new crops under realistic conditions and study their ecological effects.

And at the UI's newly built Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory on Pennsylvania Avenue, researchers can take the next step to scale up production and see what might be needed to make the products viable for farmers, industry and consumers, DeLucia said.

"This is a very important grant for the university. This prestigious award builds on our record of multidisciplinary innovation as a campus, and in particular campus excellence in agricultural research," IGB Director Gene Robinson said.

To date, bioenergy researchers have focused on breaking down grasses and other plants and converting them into some kind of usable fuel. It's easy with corn, whose kernels have lots of starch that can be crushed, fermented and turned into ethanol, DeLucia said.

But ethanol isn't the most efficient fuel, and growing corn requires fertilizers, herbicides and tilling practices that are hard on the environment, he said. So bioenergy researchers have turned to sugar cane, miscanthus and other grasses as environmentally friendly alternatives.

But the process is harder with grasses, requiring heat, acid or enzymes to break down the plant's cellulose, a more complex carbon compound, he said.

"We're talking about getting plants to skip all that," he said. "We're going to grow various types of oils in them."

A good example is sugar cane. If the plant's metabolism could be changed to put carbon into oil production instead of sugar, the oil could be squeezed from the plant and used as a fuel product, DeLucia said.

Scientists in feedstock development will model and create new plants in labs, growth chambers and greenhouses, and those that show promise and win government regulatory approval will be tested at the Energy Farm, he said.

Another group of scientists at the center will work on "conversion" — taking compounds produced by plants that may be of limited value and using yeast or other microorganisms to turn them into something more effective — biodiesel, jet fuels, lubricants or alcohols. Experts will use the IGB's "biological foundry," a plexiglass room with robots that automate the process of genetic engineering.

Other scientists will work on sustainability, studying the ecological and economical issues involved — whether the products are good for the environment, affordable in current markets and economically viable down the road, DeLucia said.

"We don't want to lock farmers into producing a compound that may be in demand today but not in demand tomorrow," he said. "If we can provide diversity to crops in the Midwest, and provide alternative revenue streams to let farmers make profits ... then we've really opened up a new industry.

"We're really hoping to open the door to a whole bio-economy where we're using plants as factories," he said.

DeLucia doesn't expect much backlash from opponents of genetically modified organisms. The agricultural region has a "great awareness of the benefits of genetic engineering" and how pervasive it is already, he said.

"We're really talking about nonfood crops here," he added. "The folks who are nervous about GMOs worry about the nutritional quality of what they're ingesting."

There are other concerns about "drift," in which genes from a genetically modified plant could jump to a native species "and make it a terrible weed," he said.

Delucia said there's little risk with the grasses they use. Most are not flowering plants and don't produce viable pollen, or their flowers are sterile, he said.

"We have huge precautions in place for that kind of thing," he said.

There are also rigorous government permits required before any plants are field-tested, he said.

The effort involves scientists from across campus, including the center's deputy directors, Don Ort, professor of plant biology and crop sciences; and Vijay Singh, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab.

Bio bits

More about the new University of Illinois Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation:

— The Department of Energy grant will provide $15 million this year and $25 million a year thereafter.

— Thirty of the 60 researchers involved will be based at the UI, meaning roughly half of the grant will stay on campus.

— Besides several federal labs, partners include the following universities: Wisconsin, Iowa State, Nebraska, Princeton, Mississippi State, Cal-Berkeley, West Virginia, Boston University, Colorado State, Idaho and Florida.