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No barriers

By Staff | Sep 24, 2010

Weihua Deng, an assistant scientist at the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, works with the research equipment in the Biorenewables Research Laboratory’s high-bay lab, where small, pilot-scale studies can be conducted to simulate more closely what occurs in a commercial setting.

AMES – From its architecture to its artwork, Iowa State University’s new Biorenewables Research Laboratory, on the west edge of campus, incorporates nontraditional elements that foster the collaboration and creativity required to help Iowa become a world leader in the bioeconomy.

“This is a very dynamic place,” said Jacqueline Shanks, an ISU professor of chemical engineering, who noted that researchers are studying sustainable feedstocks, from algae to agricultural crops, for producing chemicals, fuels, energy and more.

“Since the building has been designed around the needs of the people working in the labs, this promotes more interaction between the scientists, which saves time and enhances productivity.”

In the quest to move beyond America’s dependence on petroleum, the bioeconomy is nothing less than a revolution in the way society will supply itself with essential sources of carbon and energy, said ISU leaders, who note that the new lab is also taking a revolutionary approach.

Unlike most buildings on campus, which are dedicated to specific disciplines, the laboratory is an inter-disciplinary building that complements and replaces labs and offices previously located across the ISU campus.

The new Biorenewables Research Laboratory, which was funded by a $32 million appropriation from the state of Iowa, is located on the west edge of the Iowa State University campus.

The facility, which was dedicated on Sept. 17, also houses the administrative offices and research labs of the Bioeconomy Institute, the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, and the Biobased Industry Center.

“I’ll admit that the idea of sharing the lab intimidated me at first, but already I can see the positive impact on the research, and it’s great,” Shanks said.

In the spring of 2010, researchers began moving equipment into the new four-story, 73,000-square-foot building, which was funded entirely by a $32 million appropriation from the state of Iowa.

“With the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, we have an awesome responsibility to the people of Iowa,” said Robert Brown, an professor in engineering at ISU and Iowa Farm Bureau director of the Bioeconomy Institute. “It’s a really exciting time to be involved in biorenewables research.”

From bike paths to bio-oil

Robert Brown, left, an ISU professor in engineering, and Jacqueline Shanks, aprofessor in chemical engineering, show off the research lab’s bright, spacious interaction room.

Scientists at the lab are collaborating on a variety of projects. ISU is partnering with the Iowa Department of Transportation, which plans to pave a bicycle path with bio-asphalt made from materials like wood chips, switchgrass and corn stover.

In addition, scientists are working with the Iowa-based Hawkeye Gold to evaluate a gasification process for ethanol production.

Researchers at the lab, who work with companies ranging from startups to multinational corporations, are also studying fast pyrolysis, which quickly heats biomass (like corn stalks and leaves) in the absence of oxygen to produce a liquid product known as bio-oil that can be used to manufacture fuels and chemicals.

“The real prize is the potential to make synthetic gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel from bio-oil,” Brown said.

The bright ideas required to develop these innovative products flourish in the window-filled lab, which is designed to capture as much natural light as possible. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fourth floor’s interaction room, which offers both a view of the campus, and white boards for sketching chemical formulas, jotting notes and “thinking out loud.”

Brent Shanks, director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, explains the two additional phases that are planned for the biorenewables complex at ISU, where phase I included the Biorenewables Research Laboratory.

“This is a very fun space where people can gather to take a break and discuss ideas,” Shanks said.

Going green

The abundant natural light that reaches 92 percent of the building is just one element that has contributed to the Biorenewables Research Laboratory’s LEED-Gold certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system.

The “green” aspects of the building include a rain water recovery and reuse system, doors and cabinetry made from bamboo, a partially vegetated roof, and landscaping that includes native plants.

Another unique aspect of the building is its artwork, which reflects a partnership with ISU’s college of design. The research lab will showcase artwork from ISU students, along with soywax-based encaustic paintings by Barbara Walton, an ISU associate professor of art and design.

An ancient technique, encaustic painting involves adding colored pigments to heated wax and applying it to wood or canvas. It traditionally uses beeswax or petroleum-based wax.

However, Walton worked with Toni Wang, an ISU professor of food science and human nutrition, to develop a safer, more affordable and environmentally friendly soy-based wax. This “green” wax is creating excitement in the encaustic painting art world, said Ingrid Lilligren, a professor and director of integrated studio arts at ISU.

This focus on bio-based solutions is a natural fit for the laboratory, which completes Phase I of ISU’s multi-phase, $107.1 million Biorenewables Complex. Phase II, which will be funded through a combination of state appropriations and private gifts, will add two buildings to the site and provide a new home for ISU’s top-ranked department of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

“Our mission is for ISU to be the leader in research and development and a catalyst for commercial ventures,” said Gregory Geoffroy, ISU president. “The Biorenewables Research Laboratory is at the center of ISU’s huge efforts to build expertise in biorenewable resources and products that will fuel the bioeconomy.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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