U.S. Department of Energy renews UI's bioenergy research hub

Mar. 18—URBANA — In the country's ongoing quest to viably replace fossil-fuel-based energy and products, harnessing bioenergy from plants has long been considered the next step, University of Illinois Professor of Regenerative Agriculture Emily Heaton said.

Since 2017, the UI's research into plant-based energy alternatives has taken root at the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, called "CABBI." The U.S. Department of Energy-funded research center is heading for a renewal.

The DOE announced Friday that it's investing $590 million over the next five years for its four bioenergy research centers. More than $120 million will go to the UI-led CABBI, the newest of the bunch.

"Our economy and society will be strengthened by enhancing the productivity, resilience and sustainability of our agricultural system," CABBI Director and UI Professor Andrew Leakey said in a news release. "And CABBI will help lead the way toward the cutting-edge scientific discoveries and technologies needed to sustainably and profitably produce fuels and chemicals using plants and microbes."

CABBI's first half-decade netted some substantial discoveries, such as an analysis of "oilcane," a variety of sugarcane grown to produce oils in its stems that can complement diesel and jet fuel, and the first precision gene-editing of miscanthus, the tall perennial grass which shows promise as a biofuel source.

The next phase: Translating CABBI discoveries into products and practices that can work in the fields, Heaton said.

"After corn ethanol, we haven't had major innovations at scale for a long time, and I think that's because it's hard to put together all the pieces in a way that makes more money than corn or soy or fossil fuels," Heaton said. "This is the first time where we're seeing the pieces come together at scale that's convincing to the scientists and the people who need to use and benefit from the products."

CABBI is led by the UI, with 25 faculty from the Institute of Sustainability, Energy and Environment (iSEE) and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology leading its projects.

Another 32 scientists from 20 partner institutions — including Iowa State University, the University of Florida and the University of California, Berkeley — complete the team.

"This is one of the largest team-science projects of its kind ever," Heaton said. "It's been a surprise to many observing us that we've managed to have such a fruitful and friendly, productive team."

The project spells out three research priorities, each led by UI scientists. First is feedstock production: growing resilient, productive crops — namely sorghum, miscanthus and sugarcane — that can source biofuels.

"We have to make sure those grasses can be productive even through climate change, and can provide environmental benefits to our landscape while making these fuel molecules," Heaton said.

Heaton, who joined the UI two years ago but worked with CABBI at Iowa State, leads this research theme for CABBI.

Next comes conversion, or finding methods to turn the plants into sources of energy and other products. At this stage, researchers have mainly used yeast and other microbes that can chomp up the plants and convert them into useful molecules. The UI's Huimin Zhao, Steven L. Miller Chair in Chemical Engineering, leads this focus.

The third focus is sustainability: "Keeping everyone honest and accountable," Heaton said. Economists, life scientists and engineers lead the charge on analyzing their own bioenergy production techniques, such as carbon footprints or potential effects on soil quality. Wendy Yang, associate professor of Plant Biology and Geology, is the head of this research area.

"One thing I like about CABBI: We don't ask only 'could we' questions, but we also ask the 'should we' questions," Heaton said. "We don't do the work to make the crops or microbes unless we think that we should."

The three other bioenergy centers include the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University; the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, led by the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and the Joint BioEnergy Institute, led by DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"To meet our future energy needs, we will need versatile renewables like bioenergy as a low-carbon fuel for some parts of our transportation sector," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. "Continuing to fund the important scientific work conducted at our Bioenergy Research Centers is critical to ensuring these sustainable resources can be an efficient and affordable part of our clean energy future."

The DOE views bioenergy efforts as a key contributor to making the U.S. reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Along with its sustainability goals, Heaton emphasized CABBI's potential impacts on the economy and well-being.

"A lot of the work we're doing is making the Midwest more resilient, and making it a better place to live and grow crops, and to work," Heaton said. "Everything we're doing will complement the corn and soy system in ways that give our communities more revenue streams; better, more stable jobs for more people; cleaner air, water and soil."