Engineering perspective underlies success at CBiRC

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals continues gaining momentum in its effort to transform the chemical industry.

The center, referred to as CBiRC, was recently awarded an additional three years of funding from NSF. The added $12 million brings the total award to $30.5 million over eight years, and will allow CBiRC to build on the research initiatives, industry partnerships, and educational programs established at the center over the past four years.

CBiRC Research
Jacqueline Shanks, Manley R. Hoppe Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Metabolic Engineering Leader at CBiRC, discusses her research with students. She is leading the center’s effort to develop microbial platform technologies with the aim of redirecting the process of fatty acid assembly.

With researchers and partners across the globe representing disciplines that range from chemical and biological engineering to biochemistry, the group aims to produce chemicals from biorenewable resources to replace chemicals that are currently created from fossil sources such as crude oil and natural gas.

Because of the center’s focus on technology translation and innovation, Brent Shanks, CBiRC director and Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Iowa State, says CBiRC functions primarily from an engineering perspective. “We are working toward an outcome that has useful applications, and that’s engineering to the very core,” he explains. “On the other hand, our research is interdisciplinary, bringing in experts across several fields, which is absolutely necessary as we work towards making our goals a reality.”

A mix of disciplines operating within an engineering framework is serving the center well. “We have to meet a series of high expectations to receive funding from NSF, and the extension they have granted CBiRC gives us an idea that we are heading down the right path,” Shanks says. The center will undergo another review in three years, with potential to extend funding to a total of 10 years, at which point the center will function independently.

When discussing the importance of biorenewable chemicals, Shanks says they are a must for a sustainable future. “The feedstocks we are using right now to create things like polymers and plastics (think of the packaging for a kid’s toy) took thousands of years to develop. Within minutes of its use, the material is discarded. We absolutely need to find a way to generate these feedstocks at the same rate in which we use them,” he explains.

As CBiRC’s scientists and engineers continue research within three thrust areas—new biocatalysts for pathway engineering, microbial metabolic engineering, and chemical catalyst design—the center is also focused on establishing industrial partnerships. These partners, ranging from startup companies to multinational corporations, are members of the center, offering advice and ensuring the center is adding value where it is needed.

“We are also picking up sponsored projects, where members fund their own projects that are tied to CBiRC’s mission and the work we do at the center but that are not supported by the funding we receive from NSF,” Shanks explains. These types of projects will serve an increasingly important role once CBiRC begins to demonstrate it can operate independently in the future.

CBiRC TeamGrowing from six industry members to now 28, the center has already started transferring knowledge to these companies through new technologies, staying true to the engineering foundation of the center and making great progress in a short period of time.

Developing and sharing innovation is extended further at CBiRC through its educational programs. The center has three educational focuses—pre-college, university, and international—all providing important learning opportunities to the next generation of engineers.

For pre-college students, the connection with CBiRC may not be quite so obvious. Through unique partnerships, the center specially trains middle and high school teachers to integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics principles into their classes. CBiRC also sponsors students to come to Iowa State during the summer to do lab work. These programs have already seen great success having led several students to major in chemical engineering at Iowa State.

Raj Raman, university education program director at CBiRC and professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, says in addition to a summer research program for undergraduates and a graduate minor in biorenewable chemicals, the group is using distance learning to allow students at partner institutions to partake in the unique course offerings coming from center faculty.

“The courses and programs we offer address multiple vantages, from fundamental sciences and engineering to entrepreneurship and the existing chemical industry. We cover everything from the basics, such as how plants capture solar energy, to the economic hurdles and environmental impacts of using biorenewable feedstocks for chemicals,” Raman explains.

Yet another strength of CBiRC’s collaborative nature is seen in the opportunity for students to study and research biorenewable chemicals at international partner schools. “Our students are not only getting a classical education within a specific discipline, but their work with different research and industry partners broadens their perspective and allows them to immediately apply their work,” Shanks says.

According to Raman, that broad perspective is a game changer. “To truly impact and transform industry, we have to educate and inspire innovation in as many people as we can and get these products in use,” he says. “Our educational programs are an important part of that cycle, and they complement the center’s research. We’re well on our way to getting the pieces to work together, and the value of our efforts is starting to show.”