Big Winners in Federal Biomass Research

Three Iowa State University teams involved in biomass research projects recently received funding from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy totaling more than US$4 million. Only 19 projects out of 400 applications were selected for funding.

Ames, Iowa – April 2, 2004 [] “This is a big win for the state of Iowa and ISU,” said Robert Brown, director of ISU’s Office of Biorenewables Programs. “Not only can the use of biomass decrease our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of petroleum, it also has great potential to boost Iowa’s economy by developing value-added products from Iowa’s most important resource: agricultural crops. These awards also confirm ISU’s leadership in developing biobased products.” The Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, or CSET, a member of ISU’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology (IPRT), received $1 million from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to research production of biopolymers from distillers’ dried grains, a byproduct in the production of ethanol from corn. “Development of value-added products from these grains will be critical to the future profitability of the corn ethanol industry,” said Brown, CSET director, the ISU Bergles professor of mechanical engineering and a professor of chemical engineering. Past efforts to turn distillers’ dried grains into other products have proven too costly for commercial applications. Brown and his research team will investigate a different, three-step process that they hope will prove to be more cost effective. First, high-value compounds such as proteins and carbohydrates will be extracted from the grains. The remaining residue is then gasified into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Lastly, the carbon monoxide is fermented to create a class of polymers known as polyhydroxyalkonates, or PHAs, polyesters that have potential applications in the manufacture of biobased plastics, synthetic fibers and films. Partners in the project include South Dakota State University and Midwest Grain Processors, Lakota, Iowa, one of the largest farmer-owned ethanol plants in the country. The project builds on research supported by the Biorenewable Resources Consortium at ISU and the Iowa Energy Center. In another project, IPRT’s Center for Catalysis, or CCAT, is a partner with West Central Cooperative of Ralston, Iowa, in a $1.2 million award to study new technologies for production of methyl ester from soybeans. This “soy diesel” is gaining favor as an alternative fuel and a more environmentally friendly industrial solvent. This project was initiated by a grant from CCAT and the Biorenewables Resource Consortium. “Our new technology has the potential to reduce energy consumption, enhance economic competitiveness and lower the environmental imprint of methyl ester production,” said George Kraus, director of CCAT and a professor of chemistry at ISU. The current process to convert soy oil into soy diesel, which relies on the use of homogeneous catalysts, is energy and labor-intensive. ISU scientists have developed a more efficient method based on “mesoporous silica nanocatalysts,” honeycombed particles that speed up the conversion process and which can be more easily separated and recycled after they’ve done their job. The ISU researchers will team with West Central Cooperative, a farmer-owned cooperative that annually processes 2.2 million pounds of soy oil into methyl esters, to scale up production of test catalysts, analyze tests and design equipment to mass produce new catalysts. Another ISU research group is a partner with Metabolix, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., which won a $2 million award to study advanced biorefinery feedstocks. The ISU team is lead by Eve Wurtele, a professor of genetics, development and cell biology, and Basil Nikolau, a professor of biochemistry, who also heads the Center for Designer Crops. The goal is to develop a genetically engineered crop that can be processed into a family of biodegradable polymers, PHAs and energy. “Plants are powered by the sun; the goal of this research is to harness solar power by engineering plants that synthesize bioplastics. These plants can be used as biofactories for production of plastics,” said Wurtele. The ISU research will focus on analyzing plants such as switchgrass to identify the genes required for optimal production of PHAs. This research will leverage ISU’s W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory established by Nikolau and MetNet, a biocomputational platform developed by Wurtele and colleagues with funding from the National Science Foundation.
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