The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is doubling down on energy research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, funding a multimillion-dollar Bioenergy Research Center to provide scientific breakthroughs for a new generation of sustainable, cost-effective biofuels and bioproducts.
In July, the DOE announced the $115 million Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), a collaboration between Illinois’ Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) that will include 17 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.”
The Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) will develop new versions of Miscanthus and other bioenergy feedstocks.
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, a 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, the 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, the 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.”
Photo by Claire Benjamin, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology