Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory planned in Illinois

By University of Illinois | November 06, 2014

University, state, and industry officials came together on Oct. 22 to celebrate the announcement of a unique facility coming to the University of Illinois campus. The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory, or IBRL, will be a flexible, plug-and-play, pilot scale facility and analytical laboratory that will bring faculty, students, and industry together to develop efficient and economical strategies for the production of renewable bio-based products. The facility will be housed on the campus of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

U of I President Robert Easter gave a brief history of the project’s evolution, which began in 1998. After initial approval of $20 million in finance construction by the General Assembly, and support from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, an economic downturn put the project on hold. Easter acknowledged the many people who kept a vision for the facility, including Gov. Pat Quinn.

“The governor has been a staunch supporter of this project for a long time,”” said Easter. “Our deep appreciation goes to Governor Quinn, the General Assembly, and the DCEO for their confidence in the ability of the university to contribute significantly through the work that will go on at this facility.”

Easter said it is critical for the university to take the long view in bioprocessing research. “Fossil fuel supplies are geologically limited,” said Easter, “and it won’t be that far in the future when that supply will be reduced and constrained. Inevitably, the discussion will return again to plant-based materials as a source of fuel, and also as a source of bio-based products. It’s critical that the university continue to do the work that will be the basis for that new economy.”

Hans-Peter Blaschek, director of the IBRL and professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said, “The time it took to get the IBRL under way allowed us to design a facility that will be both relevant and useful to faculty, students, and industry partners for years to come. The facility was designed to advance research and education focused on renewable fuels, food co-products, and fiber-based processing platforms.”

Blaschek gave examples of current work that demonstrate the need for such a facility.

“This morning we had presentations from faculty teams describing recent projects at the intersection of plant and microbial genetics and bioprocessing. These projects brought together faculty expertise not normally found working together. Another example is a project we currently have with the Illinois Department of Transportation, specifically looking at the feasibility of incorporating energy crops along Illinois highway right-of-ways,” Blaschek said. “The IBRL will provide the infrastructure to support this type of team-based research and builds off the existing programs and faculty expertise that we already have.

“There is no question that Illinois has a long history of being good at fundamental and basic research,” Blaschek continued. “Moving from basic research discoveries in bioprocessing to commercial products requires a unique facility where various materials, including plant and plant co-products, can be tested for their suitability for bioprocessing to value-added products. The IBRL fills this gap in the channel from innovative research to market application and commercial products.”

Jim Underwood, executive director of the state of Illinois’s Capital Development Board, also participated in the ceremony. The CDB is the construction arm of the Illinois state government and the organization that will oversee the project. Underwood said, “The state funding for the $24 million project would not have been available without the passage of the governor’s Illinois Jobs Now! state capital bill in 2009.” Underwood also noted that the project will be designed and constructed to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency, saving energy costs for many years to come.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise spoke to the many opportunities the IBRL will provide the state and the university. “Through the IBRL, we will be able to translate fundamental research into work that will help ensure the economic prosperity of the state,” said Wise. “And while we’re helping the state push agriculture industry forward, IBRL will provide a great new education opportunity for our students to experience research from its inception to its application.”

Robert Hauser, dean of the College of ACES, asked for comments from representatives in industry to close the ceremony, saying successful partnerships between the university and industry would be key to the success of the new facility.

Chris Olsen, vice president of community and government affairs with Tate & Lyle, said, “We’re tremendously excited about this opportunity on campus. We believe it’s something that will lead to technology transfer back into Illinois. We work on a regular basis with companies developing bioproducts, and we believe that the facility we’re celebrating here today is completing a package that will make Illinois a leader in the sustainable bio-based economy.”

Construction of the IBRL is expected to begin next month and should be completed in 2016.

Following the ceremony, the John W. Maitland Biotechnology Leadership Award was presented to Robert Flider, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The award is given by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO) and goes to a government official who has provided outstanding support to the Illinois biotechnology community. The award was presented by David Miller, president and chief executive officer of iBIO.