Energy Department funds bioenergy research center

University of Illinois selected to be home of new Center for Advanced Bioenergy & Bioproducts Innovation.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is doubling down on energy research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by funding a multimillion-dollar Bioenergy Research Center to provide scientific breakthroughs for a new generation of sustainable, cost-effective biofuels and bioproducts.

On Monday, DOE announced the $104 million center, which is pending congressional appropriation. The Center for Advanced Bioenergy & Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) is a collaboration between Illinois’ Institute for Sustainability, Energy & Environment (iSEE) and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Scientists from the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences (ACES) will lead two of the major research themes. The center will also include 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.”

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, which is a direct result of state investment in the future of bioenergy research.”

CABBI will develop new versions of miscanthus and other bioenergy feedstocks using a three-pronged approach that includes feedstock development, conversion and sustainability. Stephen Moose, a professor in the department of crop sciences, will lead the feedstock development theme, integrating recent advances in genomics, synthetic biology and computational biology to increase the value of biomass crops.

Huimin Zhao, the Steven L. Miller chair in chemical engineering, will head up the conversion theme, developing a versatile, automated “biofoundry” for engineering microbial strains that can efficiently produce diverse, high-value molecules such as biodiesel, organic acids, jet fuels, lubricants and alcohols.

The sustainability theme will be led by Madhu Khanna, ACES distinguished professor in environmental economics in the department of agricultural and consumer economics. Researchers will provide an overarching framework for viewing outcomes from the feedstocks and conversion themes through an environmental and economic lens.

“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 bio-economy 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 Kim Kidwell, dean of the college of ACES, 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.

“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 Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.). “Federal investment in projects like this increases our energy security and grows our economy.”

Rep. Rodney L. Davis (R., Ill.), added: “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.”

Partner institutions include: Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Joint Genome Institute in Berkeley, Cal.; U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, La., and Peoria, Ill.; Iowa State University; Princeton University; Mississippi State University; University of California-Berkeley; West Virginia University; Boston University; University of Wisconsin-Madison; Colorado State University; University of Idaho; University of Florida; University of Nebraska; Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Wash., and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala.

Illinois has been one of DOE’s top six funding partners over the last five years. Pending congressional appropriation, CABBI will receive $4 million in fiscal 2018 and then $25 million per year in 2019-22. The center is one of four DOE bioenergy research facilities, joining the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center led by the University of Wisconsin, the Center for Bioenergy Innovation led by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Joint Bioenergy Institute led by DOE’s Berkeley National Lab.

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