Iowa State Biobased Industry Center studies carbon emissions, other industry issues

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University's new Biobased Industry Center is sponsoring four research projects designed to answer questions important to the biofuels industry.

"The purpose of the center is to study parts of the biofuels industry that have received less attention," said Ron Cox, an interim co-director of the center and the director of Iowa State's Center for Industrial Research and Service. "That's the business and economic side of the industry as opposed to the technical side of biofuel production."

The center is part of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute and has been in the works for several years. It was approved by the Iowa Board of Regents in late October. It is designed to support interdisciplinary research of the biorenewables industry and its economic, policy, business, social and workforce issues.

The center's research agenda is set with the help of an advisory board made up of representatives from industry partners. The partners' fees -- $50,000 per year for companies with more than 500 employees and $15,000 per year for companies with fewer than 500 employees -- help support the center's research projects.

The center's first grants range from $40,000 to $50,000 and will support researchers as they:

  • Develop an economic model to evaluate costs for reducing carbon emissions and analyzing different biofuel processing technologies. The study will be led by John Miranowski, an Iowa State professor who's director of the university's Institute of Science and Society and an interim co-director of the Biobased Industry Center; Douglas Karlen, a professor of soil and crop management; and Stuart Birrell, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.
  • Build a carbon model to estimate the greenhouse gas emission of biofuels and estimate changes under different policy scenarios. The study will be led by Dermot Hayes, professor and Pioneer Chair in Agribusiness; and Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development and professor of economics.
  • Develop an economic framework for assessing how land-use changes impact biofuels' greenhouse gas emissions. The study will be led by Babcock.
  • Do a techno-economic analysis of corn stover production, harvest, storage and transport. The study will be led by Robert Anex, associate director for research programs of the Bioeconomy Institute and associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; Birrell; and Matthew Darr, an assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

"Our industrial advisory board prioritizes topics that are crucial to the industry," Miranowski said. "And this year, companies are very interested in the interface of carbon and biofuel policy."

Miranowski said the results of the research projects can be published and shared. The center will not develop proprietary information for its industry partners.

Jill Euken, the deputy director for industry and outreach for Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute, said the Biobased Industry Center now has nine industrial partners and two nonprofit partners. The companies are involved in feedstock production, biofuels conversion, fuel storage and blending, fuel sales and auto manufacturing.

"These companies are all interested in the policy, economic and workforce issues of the biobased industry," Euken said. "They all understand that policy decisions can have more impact on their business decisions than technological breakthroughs."

In addition to launching its first research projects, center leaders are working to find a permanent director. The new leader will hold the Cargill Endowed Chair in Energy Economics at Iowa State. Miranowski, who is serving as chair of the search committee for the position, said the goal is to have a chair and leader for the center by next fall.

There are high hopes for the new center: "We expect that the center will become a key partner in major national and global initiatives," says the job description for the center's leader, "and a global leader in research related to the economics of the biobased industry and the energy and product markets in which it operates."