First year of Center for Biorenewable Chemicals builds bridges to science, industry

AMES, Iowa - Brent Shanks studies chemical catalysts in Iowa State University's Sweeney Hall. Just a few buildings to the north, Basil Nikolau studies biological catalysts.

Nikolau said the two researchers used to talk twice a year about the science of using different kinds of catalysts to accelerate chemical reactions. But now, thanks to the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State, they're meeting 20-plus times a year to talk catalysis. That's just one way the center is beginning to bring together two research camps that haven't been working together.

And that's a small example of the progress the center has sparked in the year since it was established by a five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The center - by getting researchers to work together, teaching students to cross disciplines, bringing industry into the research and developing collaborations overseas - is working toward its goal of transforming the ways industrial chemicals are produced. Rather than an industry based on petroleum, center researchers want to see an industry based on biorenewable resources.

Shanks, the director of the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals and professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Nikolau, the center's deputy director and the Frances M. Craig Professor in the departments of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology and food science and human nutrition, said the center has made good progress in its first year.

It has passed an NSF evaluation. It has assembled a team of 24 researchers from nine academic institutions who are working with 70 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers and more than 20 undergraduate students. It is working with 14 high school and middle school teachers. It has signed on five industrial partners and is working with the Iowa Department of Economic Development to bring in more. It has ties to six scientific journal publications, including "Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Monofunctional Hydrocarbons and Targeted Liquid-Fuel Classes," published by Science in October 2008.

Shanks said a highlight of the center's work so far has been watching all of that come together: "I can now see the pieces taking shape for what's required to make this center successful."

For Nikolau, the highlight was watching meeting rooms fill during the NSF's annual site visit in May: "I was pleased that by May the center had grown by so many people."

All those people are involved in the center's core mission: to find ways to integrate biological and chemical catalysts to produce biorenewable chemicals. Advances could move the $400 billion U.S. industrial chemical industry toward more sustainable feedstocks and technologies.

And Shanks thinks Iowa State is in a unique position to research and develop those advancements.

First, Shanks said, Iowa's farms are a tremendous source of biomass. And second, Iowa State has developed scientific expertise in biorenewable technologies and plant sciences.

"We have the biomass and the technical expertise here," he said. "Those are some of the pieces that make our center unique."

But can the center actually help transform the chemical industry?

"Just by the fact we have a broad vision to use both chemical and biological catalysts to attack this problem is something that's been missing," Shanks said. "The industry has been developing biorenewable technologies product by product. Pulling these ideas together into a general framework for creating a range of chemicals is a big part of the battle."

And, Nikolau said, "The other way we'll transform this industry is through our students. They'll take the training they receive from the center out into industry."

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals is based at Iowa State and is working with academic partners at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Rice University in Houston, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the University of California, Irvine. The center is also working with affiliated faculty from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. International partners are the Fritz-Haber-Institute of the Max-Planck-Society in Berlin, Germany, and the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby. The center is also developing pre-college programs with Des Moines Public Schools and the Heartland Area Education Agency in Johnston. The center has industrial partnerships with the Grain Processing Corp. of Muscatine; the Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. of The Woodlands, Texas; POET of Sioux Falls, S.D.; Novozymes of Denmark (with an office in the Iowa State University Research Park); and Elevance Renewable Sciences Inc. of Bolingbrook, Ill. The center will develop additional partnerships with industry and start-up companies through Iowa State's Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.