A new facility at the University of Illinois has been proposed that would complete the value-chain between research and commercial viability of advanced biofuels and chemicals.
The state’s Capital Development Board has designated more than $20 million to build the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois. The new facility would be an outgrowth of the Center for BioEnergy Research (CABER).
The new facility would be built as flexible as possible to develop efficient strategies for the conversion of various feedstocks, says Hans Blaschek, director, CABER. “Even on the corn ethanol side, there are still opportunities to improve efficiencies—water use, for example,” he notes. Scientists at the new facility also would focus on better ways to convert energy crops, such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, to liquid fuels and chemicals. Polylactic acid, butanol and other chemicals produced by fermentation are just a few examples.
Farmers have reaped the benefits of this kind of research, Blaschek says, pointing to how much higher crop values and land values are today than 30 years ago. “We’re all about diversification and we feel strongly that we can produce both fuel and food efficiently.”
CABER already has been working with the Illinois Department of Transportation on the feasibility of planting energy grasses along rights-of-way throughout the state. The new lab would study how to convert these grass materials for co-firing or biofuel production. There already is a plot of land being studied near Rantoul, IL. Even with last year’s drought, blue stem grass grew relatively well, Blaschek notes.
Scientists at ACES also have been working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the efficient production of butanol as a next generation liquid fuel.
ACES researchers have studied the effect of enzymatic hydrolysis on pre-treatment of Miscanthus. They also have analyzed the influence of feedstock particle size on lignocellulose conversion, said Vijay Singh, professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, ACES. “In other words, how fine do we have to grind this material in order to maximize ethanol yields?”
In addition, ACES worked with the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research and the USDA to study the effects of mycotoxins on ethanol production. The effect of the fungus was only observed on the oil content in distillers dried grains with solubles, and was found to have no detrimental effect on ethanol.
Singh is working to develop industry relationships and provide connectivity between industry and other institutions interested in pilot-scale proof-of-concept activities. DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Novozymes have already joined as affiliate members, and Singh said in the last year, five multinational companies recently completed projects at the current facility.
Groundbreaking for the new facility is expected to take place this fall, with completion expected in 18 months.