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Mason Brockett


URBANA — Most people think of fermenting grains to make beer, but to the folks in the University of Illinois Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab, it’s so much more than that.

“People probably wouldn’t think about fabrics, but there are companies who are using fermentation to make like polyester or nylon, because those are traditionally petroleum-derived chemicals,” said IBRL Associate Director of Business Development Beth Conerty.

“They’re trying to use a biological process to replace those petroleum processes.”

That’s not all: The precision fermentation process can also be used to create fuel, protein for meat alternatives, cosmetic ingredients and more.

As one of 31 partners in the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub, which was designated a Regional Innovation and Technology Hub last fall.

That designation allowed iFAB to apply for $70 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration last week which, iFAB leadership announced Monday, inspired partners to commit nearly $680 million “to realize our vision for Illinois to become the heart of biomanufacturing,” Conerty said.

This funding would support seven different projects which all aim to support the business of biomanufacturing, either by building facilities or by supporting and educating students and entrepreneurs.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said that the idea of pushing central Illinois as a leader in bioprocessing was something he and his peers were discussing in 2017 and former UI President Robert Easter was envisioning even earlier.

The pandemic derailed some of those conversations, but Rose said he’s happy to see so much funding going toward promoting bioprocessing because East Central Illinois has so many of the agricultural and technological resources needed to support the industry.

“There’s literally nowhere else on earth that has what we have to offer,” Rose said.

UI Chancellor Robert Jones also highlighted importance of ILDR and iFAB’s location when it comes to agriculture and biomanufacturing.

“We have all the components we need to prime a biomanufacturing economy within a 50-mile radius of where we are today,” Jones said.

“There really is no place in the world that can match what we have right here, right now in central Illinois.”

While iFAB and ILDR have been working in the fermentation and biomanufacturing spheres for a while, Conerty said the Regional Innovation and Technology Hub designation in October really brought all of the iFAB partners together.

“I just see it propelling that at a faster rate,” she said.

One of the seven initiatives supported by this funding involves a partnership between iFAB and two unions, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and the Decatur Building & Construction Trades Council, to train tradespeople to build the complex equipment and facilities needed to enable biomanufacturing.

DBCTC president Josh Sapp said funding will go into hiring recruitment staff, including an equity director, to bring more members into the union as well as supporting existing members.

“We will be able to expand the training of our existing members by investing in new training equipment and offering continuing education courses in the latest technologies,” Sapp said.

URBANA, Ill. — Complex biomanufacturing equipment is required to turn corn and soybeans into value-added products through the process of fermentation. New initiatives led by the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) are training more skilled tradespeople to support this rapidly growing industry in Central Illinois.

IBRL is a 42,000-square-foot facility that has served more than 100 clients looking to biomanufacturing to produce new food ingredients, alternative proteins, biofuels, bioplastics, sustainable textiles, ag inputs, cosmetics, and more. Based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the IBRL is part of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and The Grainger College of Engineering.

IBRL is also part of the Illinois Fermentation and Agricultural Biomanufacturing (iFAB) Regional Innovation and Technology Hub designated by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) to boost bioprocessing and precision fermentation industry growth in Champaign, Piatt, and Macon counties.

“One of the important aspects of the iFAB Tech Hub is the quality and range of jobs it will create — to grow biomanufacturing will require a wide range of expertise including trades, scientists, technicians, and engineers. We are excited to connect skilled workers with desirable opportunities in this field,” said Beth Conerty, iFAB regional innovation officer and IBRL associate director of business development.

As a designated Tech Hub, iFAB has cleared the first phase of the EDA Tech Hubs program and qualifies to apply for phase two funding of $45 million to $70 million. Phase two funding would allow IBRL to expand by 40,000 square feet to support innovation and job growth in precision fermentation.

In addition, phase two funding would support workforce development through Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and other consortium members including Parkland CollegeRichland Community CollegeChampaign County Regional Planning CommissionWorkforce Investment SolutionsIllinois AgriFood Alliance, and a construction management program offered through ABE at U. of I.

To meet the growing needs of iFAB’s 30 partner organizations, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 opened a new training center in Savoy, Ill. The five-year apprenticeship program guarantees opportunities for jobs with Local 149 upon completion.

Through a partnership with Parkland College, graduates can also earn an associate’s degree in construction trade technology by taking courses designed to support career growth. Parkland also offers an Early College and Career Academy (ECCA) and Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP) that provide pathways into the construction trades.

“Pipefitting is a career well suited to people who like to solve problems, use math, and work with their hands, and biomanufacturing offers unlimited opportunities for skilled tradespeople,” said journeyperson pipefitter BJ Glasa, who completed a Local 149 apprenticeship nearly 20 years ago.

In 2016, Glasa helped build the IBRL as a general foreperson with Davis-Houk Mechanical. Shortly after, Glasa went on to join the Facility & Services team at the U. of I. where he was assigned to projects at IBRL due to his familiarity with the building’s piping layout and valve locations. A few odd jobs transformed into a full-time role as the facility’s list of clients and needs expanded.

“BJ immediately became the resource that we didn’t know we needed,” said Brian Jacobson, IBRL’s associate director of strategic operations. “Frankly, he now knows more about bioprocessing pipefitting than anybody. He has tremendous specialized expertise in this area.”

Today, the building operates at capacity, and Glasa is instrumental in equipment installations, repairs, and maintenance needed to keep the facility running. In addition to outfitting the IBRL from top to bottom, he has assisted with necessary modifications and installations to bring another iFAB partner, Boston Bioprocess, to full functionality.

Most pipefitters work on new construction projects, in all weather, with blueprints and a clearly defined goal for each day. IBRL offers pipefitters a more controlled environment but with uncontrollable needs and demands.

For Glasa, it is a pipefitter’s dream — he loves the variety that the biomanufacturing industry offers.

“Some pipefitters might only work with domestic water for years,” Glasa said. “But in this building, you can work with domestic and chilled water, steam and compressed air, nitrogen and vacuum lines, and natural gas — almost everything to do in the pipefitting industry is all in this one building.”

IBRL’s facilities contain copper, carbon steel, CPVC, and more stainless-steel pipes than Glasa has ever seen on a job. Stainless is the cleanest, strongest, and longest lasting of all pipes, but also the most difficult to cut, thread, and weld.

Glasa’s crowning achievement is the “fermentation row” — an incredibly intricate composition of pipes and valves that services every fermentation project at the IBRL. Several industry peers have used this innovative design as a basis for their facilities.

“When we built the facility, it was all drawn by architects and engineers, so I was pretty much following blueprints, which is a big part of the job,” Glasa said. “But none of that rack was engineered — they told me point A and what they needed to get to point B, and then I figured a way to route it all out there. I built that rack to provide very specific pressures, temperatures, flow rates, every piece of it, from that wall to the other equipment.”

IBRL and the fermentation row are continually evolving thanks to Glasa’s expertise, but space is a limiting factor, Conerty said. “The EDA’s phase II funding will allow IBRL to expand to help more companies harness precision fermentation to launch new sustainable products that benefit our society.”

Contact Beth Conerty at to learn more about the iFAB Tech Hub, opportunities for bioprocessing pilot projects at IBRL, biomanufacturing workforce development, and more.

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing (iFAB) Tech Hub brings together a consortium of 30 partner organizations representing academic, industry, government, and nonprofit partners who are committed to catalyzing bioprocessing and precision fermentation industry growth in Champaign, Piatt, and Macon counties. iFAB is part of the Innovate Illinois initiative.

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Top down view of IBRL’s fermentation area showing piping connecting utilities to each fermentation skid.

Legislation in Congress would expand a federal grant and loan program that helps producers of biofuels and other biomanufactured products build and expand their facilities.

A Congressional bill proposed by Midwestern representatives from both parties is aimed at spurring innovation in biofuel technology and increasing its production.

The Agriculture Biorefinery Innovation and Opportunity Act, or Ag BIO Act, would increase funding for innovation in the biofuels and bioproducts industry. Reps. Zach Nunn, R–Iowa, and Nikki Budzinski, D–Illinois, introduced the legislation in November.

The proposed bill would revise an existing grant and loan program for biobased manufacturing run by the USDA’s Rural Development office, and in the House version of the bill, increase its annual funding to $100 million a year for the next five years from its current $75 million a year.

“The Ag BIO Act will eliminate bureaucratic red tape that is driving up energy costs by making it harder for biofuels producers to innovate and expand their manufacturing capacity,” said Rep. Nunn, the bill’s chief House sponsor in a news release.

Iowa is the nation’s top producer of biofuels. Nunn said that industry is an economic driver for his state and “critical to our nation’s energy security.”

Rep. Budzinski emphasizes what the legislation could do for other biomanufacturing that is still in the research and development phase. She said it could help finance the development of new crop-based products, from plastics to detergents, providing an alternative to their petroleum-based counterparts.

“It’s products being processed out of organic material to create new products,” Budzinski said, “that’s why I think this is a really unique opportunity for us to create new markets for our family farmers.”

The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois provides support for startup firms looking to develop their own bioengineered products. Associate Director for Business Development Beth Conerty said the Ag BIO Act could help these firms develop their own production capacities and help the U.S. better compete with other countries in the developing field of biomanufacturing.

“If you’re looking at the more traditional manufacturing processes, a lot of that has been off-shored,” said Conerty. “But using biology as a manufacturing tool, I wouldn’t say that anybody has won that yet. And it is an opportunity for the U.S.”

The bill has the support of industry and farming organizations, such as the Agriculture Energy Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based group representing both agriculture and manufacturing in the field of biotechnology.

AgEC’s Executive Director Lloyd Ritter said the proposed bill, along with other similar pending legislation, could help the U.S. produce more biofuels and other crop-based alternatives to products now made from petroleum.

Anything that we produce or have produced from traditional refineries for the last hundred years or so can be made by our farmers and our clean technology and biotechnology companies in rural America,” he said.

Yet others worry that relying on biofuels and other biomanufactured products won’t move the needle far enough on climate change, even if lowering the reliance on fossil fuels. Brett Hartl is governmental affairs director for the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which focuses on the protection of endangered species from environmental hazards, among other things.

Hartl said while his group is neither supporting nor opposing the Ag BIO Act, he believes current biofuels still have too large an environmental impact in both their manufacture and use when compared with electric power.

“If you have to think about what to do over the next 10 to 20 years, we don’t think that traditional biofuels really get us where we need to be,” said Hartl. “That does not foreclose any of the potential for advanced biofuels doing something great. We don’t know yet.”

A Senate companion version of the bill was introduced in October by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D–Minnesota and co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R–Kansas.

Laboratory staff work in the Volatiles Room, designed for processing flammable solvents, at the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) recently designated iFAB as a Tech Hub under the Tech Hubs Program, established by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.

New York, NY – 6th December 2023 – Synonym, the data-driven infrastructure development, and management platform for the bioeconomy, today announces its recognition as a member of the Consortium of the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub (iFAB). This comes as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) recently designated iFAB as a Tech Hub under the Tech Hubs Program, established by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.

The Tech Hubs Program is geared towards investing directly in high-potential U.S. regions, to transform them into globally competitive innovation centers. iFAB’s focus is on advancing agriculture and industry through biomanufacturing. Biomanufacturing, which involves converting crops such as corn and soybeans into a diverse range of high-value commodities, has potential for substantial environmental and economic impact, but there is a lack of existing infrastructure to meet this demand.

iFAB, with Synonym joining as a participant, is strategically positioned to address this infrastructure gap and elevate Illinois into a global hub for fermentation manufacturing. iFAB is home to one of the most comprehensive bioprocessing scale-up facilities in the nation, the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab (IBRL), and expansion plans could increase anticipated industry growth, create new jobs and service more customers.

Synonym is proud to join the current consortium members, including:

  • Higher Education Institutions (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
  • Economic Development Organizations
  • Industry Firms (ADM, Boston Bioprocess, Clarkson Grain Company, gener8tor, Primient, Serra Ventures)
  • Industry Groups
  • Labor Organizations
  • Manufacturing Extension Centers
  • Units of Government
  • Venture Development Organizations
  • Workforce Training Organizations

Edward Shenderovich, CEO at Synonym, said: “”We are honored to be part of the iFAB Consortium and the Tech Hubs Program. This recognition is very much aligned with Synonym’s company-wide vision and we are excited to be part of an initiative that drives sustainable economic growth and precision fermentation into the future. Together, with the great group of Consortium members, we look forward to contributing our development and capital markets expertise to make Illinois and the US global leaders in fermentation manufacturing and accelerate large-scale biomanufacturing domestically.”

For more information about Synonym, please visit To learn more about the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub (iFAB), please visit

About Synonym

Synonym is accelerating our materials transition by building an entirely new asset class. Synonym believes that bioproducts will emerge as crucial parts of the global industrial supply chain and help catalyze a decarbonized future. Synonym allows the companies behind next-generation products to expand and scale seamlessly with the most efficient financing and development mechanisms in the market, while opening an entirely new industrial asset class to investors. Synonym launched the world’s only free directory of available fermentation capacity at and, this year, Scaler, another free tool allowing companies to better understand their bioproducts’ paths to market. Learn more about at or follow us on LinkedIn for the latest on the biomanufacturing revolution.

Just as the alchemists of yesteryear sought to convert base metals into gold, today’s most prolific innovators have their sights set on transforming simple sugars into valuable products through a process called precision fermentation.

While alchemists fell short of their aspirations, precision fermentation is not only a successful reality, but is also quickly turning into a multibillion-dollar industry that will create tens of thousands of jobs while helping the planet become more sustainable.

Precision fermentation is a processing technique that converts microorganisms and microbials into in-demand compounds. Precision fermentation processes are already capable of converting corn into ethanol and underutilized corn feedstocks into high-value ingredients, materials, chemicals and more. While innovation in this space remains somewhat nascent, there are untold applications for this technology yet to be unearthed — and central Illinois is at the heart of this industry.

Just last month, the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub (iFAB) at the University of Illinois was recognized as one of 31 U.S. Regional and Innovation Technology Hubs, solidifying its leadership in bioprocessing innovation and positioning the region for significant investment over the next several years.

The work happening at iFAB will be transformative, not only for our local and national economies, but also for our nation’s security. The economic and national security implications for precision fermentation innovation span energy independence, food security, sustainable manufacturing, food safety and innovation.

Consider the following impacts that precision fermentation can have:

Energy independence through biofuels:

  • By creating biofuels, precision fermentation can reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil and strengthen our economy by potentially reducing trade deficits and stabilizing energy prices. Energy independence also strengthens our national security by making us less vulnerability to supply disruptions from global hot spots or decisions made by foreign oil suppliers.

Food security with alternative proteins:

  • The global demand for meat is rising, and precision fermentation can help meet that need in a environmentally sustainable way that helps the U.S. capture a significant market share of this new industry. Additionally, ensuring a stable, domestic supply of protein reduces reliance on international food chains, which can be disrupted by geopolitical events, climate change or pandemics.

Sustainability and textile manufacturing:

  • Sustainable textiles created by fermentation can lead to new markets and innovations, with consumers increasingly demanding environmentally friendly products. By producing textiles domestically, the U.S. reduces dependence on potentially unstable regions and ensures the availability of essential materials during global crises.

Innovation in materials with bioplastics and polymers:

  • As global demand grows for sustainable materials, lead in bioplastic production through fermentation processes can allow the U.S. to reduce its carbon footprint, capture significant market share and drive technological advancements. Diversifying the sources of materials also reduces reliance on foreign suppliers, especially for critical industries or technologies.

The bottom line: we are only starting to scratch the surface of precision fermentation’s many benefits, and central Illinois can be a global leader in this technology.

iFAB’s Tech Hub designation and the funding and prestige that accompanies it has transformative potential for the area. That’s why U.S. lawmakers must encourage and accelerate American innovation, not undermine it with short-sighted, overly broad regulations.

Current policy proposals circulating in the Senate would handcuff American innovation while disincentivizing future growth and innovation during a time when it has proven essential to our economy and national security. Illinois’ congressional leaders need to make sure they are backing new technologies, especially those that bring new jobs and economic growth to the state.

Policymakers must consider the big picture, recognizing that through investment and leadership in these key sectors, the U.S. can position itself for both economic growth and greater resilience against global uncertainties in both the near and long terms.

The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Research Park startup Boston Bioprocess (BBP) are part of the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub (iFAB), a newly designated Regional Innovation and Technology Hub fueling innovation and job creation in Central Illinois.

Co-located in Urbana-Champaign, IBRL and BBP are quickly becoming premier destinations for companies looking to leverage biomanufacturing to produce novel food ingredients, agricultural inputs, bio-materials, bio-aviation fuel, and more.

“IBRL and BBP provide complementary expertise and an ecosystem of resources to rapidly advance cutting-edge biomanufacturing and bioprocessing processes from the flask to industrial scale,” said iFAB Principal Investigator Beth Conerty, who is the associate director of business development at IBRL, part of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and The Grainger College of Engineering.

BBP oversees process development and finalizes parameters, preparing products to be scaled up at IBRL, said BBP cofounder and CEO Michael Tai. “BBP’s early-stage resources and experimental design expertise coupled with IBRL’s pilot-scale infrastructure helps clients smoothly transition from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Tai added. “We provide our clients with access to a suite of assets, talent, and expertise to navigate their scale-up journey.”

The two organizations are also committed to supporting iFAB’s workforce training goals to ensure the local expertise through trade programs and advanced degrees is available to realize these innovative fermentation technologies in Central Illinois.

IBRL has provided training to over 150 interns from U. of I. programs such as agricultural and biological engineering and food science. Upon graduation, these students transition to full-time roles at IBRL and across the industry, including many of IBRL’s 100+ industry clients.

“We’re working with some of the most cutting-edge synthetic biology companies out there, so students have direct access to venture capital-backed startups across all kinds of industries, host organisms, and products,” Conerty said. “In terms of learning and career opportunities, the multiplicity of jobs in the biomanufacturing sector is unparalleled.”

BBP has brought on three interns and a full-time employee from U. of I., creating additional opportunities for highly skilled graduates. “Our long-term plans for expansion and growth will result in more highly-skilled jobs locally,” Tai said. “IBRL and BBP’s partnership is establishing the region as a destination for biomanufacturing research, testing, and workforce development.”

Tai also brings expertise to the growing fermentation industry in Central Illinois. Previously, Tai managed production for multiple products at a scale of 500,000L+ at ADM, which is a key member of the iFAB consortium. As part of the strong partnership, Tai has shared his knowledge and insights running large-scale fermentation projects, including yeast, fungal, and bacterial strains, through the IBRL’s short courses for industry practitioners.

Both IBRL and BBP have benefited from expertise in the local Plumbers & Pipefitters Union (UA 149), which has been instrumental in developing and maintaining the infrastructure required for these emerging technologies. UA 149 recently established a new training facility that will help meet the demands of the expanding fermentation industry.

Contact iFAB Director Beth Conerty at to discuss the myriad of opportunities supported by the iFAB Tech Hub, including bioprocessing pilot projects, workforce development, online programs, and more.

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing (iFAB) Tech Hub brings together a consortium of 30 partner organizations representing academic, industry, government, and nonprofit partners who are committed to catalyzing bioprocessing and precision fermentation industry growth in Champaign, Piatt, and Macon counties. 

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Fermentation research is conducted at IBRL.

CHAMPAIGN — Local and regional partners are working on a federal grant application to help promote biomanufacturing in Champaign, Macon and Piatt counties.

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing consortium is one of 31 organizations designated as a tech hub by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration in October, qualifying it to apply for implementation funding.

“The tech hub was a really exciting achievement for us, something we’ve been working to build momentum behind for years,” said Carly McCrory-McKay, executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. and part of iFAB’s leadership. “That’s a sign from the federal government that’s essentially a stamp of approval … because their purpose is that these tech hubs can become the global leaders in that particular space within the next decade.”

IFAB is a consortium of about 30 members, with the UI’s Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory as the lead applicant, she said. The group includes, but is not limited to, higher-education partners, economic development corporations, industry partners and units of government.

Champaign County, the city of Champaign, the city of Decatur, Macon County, Piatt County and the state of Illinois are all involved.

According to a description from the federal economic development agency, iFAB “seeks to scale precision fermentation to convert underutilized corn feedstocks into high-value, customized alternative proteins, food ingredients, materials, chemicals and more.”

“The iFAB Tech Hub … will increase domestic biomanufacturing through the development and deployment of capacity and equipment for biomanufacturing innovators while also training a skilled workforce,” officials said in a release.

According to a release from the UI’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the precision fermentation industry “is projected to reach $11.8 billion by 2028, with the potential to generate one million jobs by 2030.”

The announcement of the 31 tech hubs marked the first phase of the program, which federal agency officials describe as “an economic development initiative designed to drive regional innovation and job creation by strengthening a region’s capacity to manufacture, commercialize, and deploy technology that will advance American competitiveness.”

IFAB and the other tech hubs can apply to receive implementation grant funding, with applications due Feb. 29.

“We’re asking for $70 million for different component projects to really scale bioprocessing and fermentation here in our community, but even beyond the EDA application that’s due at the end of February, the iFAB Tech Hub as a whole is continuing to seek other sources of funding to be able to accomplish and do the things that we need to do,” McCrory-McKay said. “A lot of that centers around building additional infrastructure for demonstration-scale facilities.”

At present, there is a “bottleneck” in the industry due to a lack of fermentation infrastructure in the U.S., she said. IFAB leaders seek to build out more mid-level facilities to address this and hope to use part of the $70 million for this purpose.

“When the middle gets built, we want that to happen here in our community,” she said.

According to Beth Conerty, associate director of business development at the UI’s bioprocessing research lab and regional innovation officer at iFAB, the grant application features seven different projects. These include:

  • Four construction projects “to build facilities that can help companies get from an idea all the way up through manufacturing readiness.” Two of these would take place on the UI campus, and two would take place in Decatur in collaboration with private industry partners.
  • A “hub of management” to ensure iFAB’s various projects and efforts are aligned and in communication.
  • A workforce development project led by Parkland College in collaboration with Richland Community College, regional planning commissions for both communities, the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and four labor unions.
  • Entrepreneurship programming to support small companies that want to stay in the area.

Conerty said she feels optimistic about their chances of receiving funding.

“I think that we’re really strategically positioned,” she said. “This is not just a University of Illinois-led application; we have very strong involvement with major industry partners here in central Illinois. We’ve gotten very good feedback that … the industry we’re tackling and the technology we’re tackling would employ people of all sorts of backgrounds and skillsets and at all different levels. And that diversity of opportunity is really working in favor for our hub.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is a research powerhouse and home to a plethora of labs filled with faculty experts. These labs act as a bridge to help us collaborate with industries to kindle research and engage in professional development opportunities. The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory is a great example of a UIUC facility that serves as a backbone for its partners, advanced knowledge, and learning in the industry.

The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) opened in September 2018 to support pilot-scale bioprocessing research and effectuate economic development opportunities for the state of Illinois. The four years of IBRL’s operation coincided with a global production expansion in the biomanufacturing and bioprocessing industry. IBRL’s combination of preparation, relationship building, and fortuitous timing has resulted in rapid growth and active industry engagement. Industry partners of the IBRL work with the lab to: use our Research facilities and expertise, educate the next generation of bioprocessing leaders about your equipment and increase your brand awareness, upskill your workers and collaborate on industry-wide goals, and hire trained and knowledgeable students.

Due to its immense success in less than 5 years of operation, the IBRL has the ability to help your company innovate at a rapid pace. The potential talent pipeline, opportunities for professional development, an avenue for brand awareness in a leading community, state-of-the-art facilities, and leading researchers make the IBRL the perfect place for you and your team, products, and ideas to grow.

Contact us or Dr. Beth Conerty to start a conversation on how the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois can fuel your company’s growth!

Helping create a more sustainable future today, especially with the effects of climate change, takes a lot of work and isn’t easy. The Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, however, is up for the task.

ABE’s unique mission of combining fundamental engineering skills with food, agriculture, environment, and energy training has made the department renowned among industry leaders and experts. It is also known for its well-prepared graduates who excel in the workforce.

Digital Agriculture is a quickly growing field and a surplus of jobs awaits professionals with a distinctive interdisciplinary combination of skills and backgrounds from agriculture and computer science,” says ABE Department Head and Professor Ronaldo Maghirang. “These career opportunities are projected to grow as agriculture companies advance and bring more technology into their practices.”

This is something that Dr. Paul Davidson unlocked at ABE. Growing up on a small farm in Southern Illinois, he developed a keen interest in all things agriculture and STEM-related subjects. After high school, Davidson began his journey by completing an associate degree from Olney Central College before arriving at UIUC. Here, he earned his BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Agricultural and Biological Engineering at ABE.

As an ABE graduate, Davidson stood out in a highly competitive market, something he credits the university for. After completing his PhD at UIUC, he worked as an environmental consultant for four years with Waterborne Environmental, Inc, before returning to ABE and teaching the same programmes he took, focusing on water resources and project management.

Today, he is passionate about helping students explore, research, and make the most out of their upskilling and reskilling journey here. Davidson serves as the advisor for the Professional Science Master’s in Engineering Technology & Management for Agricultural Systems. It equips students with a solid foundation of engineering principles, the technology used, and the integration of business concepts in these industries.

Graduates have promising career opportunities, both in technical and leadership roles. “Combining science and business coursework provides a robust experience for students,” Davidson says. “The culmination of both gives students the flexibility to tailor their coursework to their career aspirations.”

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The ABE department prepares students to address critical challenges within the agriculture sector. Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Having an idea of what you want your future to look like is always a good idea. If bio-based products and energy are more up your lane, then the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy is ideal. Students can learn from and with world-renowned scientists and researchers in both academia and industry to develop new technologies. And what’s better is you will have access to the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL), a state-of-the-art pilot facility at UIUC.

“The combination of business skills and a deeper scientific skillset is invaluable to students when they transition to industry,” says Dr. Beth Conerty. Her journey also tells of a success story, starting at ABE as a young student to now teaching at the front of the class.

Having completed a PSM in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy, she then earned her PhD in Energy Science and Engineering while interning at the Office of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“Towards the end of 2017, the IBRL had completed construction, and they needed someone to do business development,” she says. Part of the role was to advise the PSM Bioprocessing and Bioenergy programme, and she jumped at it. Conerty is particularly fond of the IBRL because experiential learning is emphasised.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Teachers provide adequate support and guidance, ensuring students are well-prepared for future jobs. Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“IBRL gives students real-world experience; equipment operation and project execution show students how course material applies in the real world,” she says. Conerty is a big fan of how balanced the programme is and how students can benefit because of it. “Their knowledge of industrially relevant equipment is uncommon among recent graduates, and this skill sets them apart in job applications.”

If you have been reading all this so far and are wondering whether you can get these qualifications remotely, it is possible. UIUC offers an online, non-thesis Master of Engineering (MEng) in Digital Agriculture. It is the first interdisciplinary degree programme specialising in digital agriculture with a partnership between Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Center for Digital Agriculture, Crop Sciences, and Computer Science. It builds on the groundwork of other programmes, focusing on training and application of technology in digital agriculture.

This field is quickly growing as we try to produce enough food to feed an ever-growing population sustainably and efficiently. Projections from the US Department of Agriculture estimate 27% of agriculture job opportunities are related to the technology, science, engineering, and mathematics areas of agriculture. In the 2021 AI Index report, agriculture was ranked in the top three for job postings in AI. “The Digital Agriculture curriculum is designed to provide working professionals with skills to become competitive for a career in these areas,” says Dr. Christina Tucker, assistant director of programmes. “The master’s programme provides comprehensive skills across the full domain and the certificates provide themed skills that can be completed in a shorter amount of time.”

Although online, the programme provides four hours of professional development, a requirement that’s typically completed during the summer. “The professional development can either be a design project from an industry partner or an internship with a company. We will help students find internship placement if they are not already employed full-time,” says  Tucker. “Students who want to do the design project can work on a project at their current place of employment or we have projects from Center for Digital Agriculture Industry Partners.”

With seemingly endless opportunities, agricultural enthusiasts looking for careers have much to gain. As for the university itself, it will continue to stand out for various reasons, including its strategic position. Home to innovative research firms like the Illinois Autonomous Farmthe Farm of the Future, Center for Digital Agriculture, and the Artificial Intelligence for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management and Sustainability (AIFARMS), UIUC ensures you are in good hands for a secure future.

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DOE Renews CABBI Five More Years

Earlier today the DOE announced a five-year extension of funding for the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), to a total of $262.5 million for the period from 2017 to 2027. CABBI is a collaboration between the university’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE), the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), 11 academic departments across the Illinois campus, and 20 partner institutions across the nation.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in the DOE news release. “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.”

Andrew Leakey, Professor and Head of the Department of Plant Biology at Illinois, will continue as Director of CABBI, a position he has held since 2020.

“Energy independence has become an increasingly important security issue for the United States, and CABBI will continue to provide breakthroughs toward a new generation of sustainable, cost-effective biofuels and bioproducts that will replace fossil fuel-based products,” Leakey said. “This grant represents a massive investment in CABBI and its diverse team of scientists. We are committed to help push the U.S. toward a new bio-based economy.”

During Phase II, CABBI researchers will continue to develop fuels and products by integrating three highly interconnected DOE priority areas:

  • Feedstock Production — Led by Emily Heaton, a Professor of Regenerative Agriculture in Crop Sciences at Illinois, scientists use the “plants as factories” paradigm, in which biofuels, bioproducts, and foundation molecules for conversion are grown directly in crops that are resilient and productive.
  • Conversion — Led by Huimin Zhao, the Steven L. Miller Chair in Chemical Engineering at Illinois, experts continue to develop unique tools, yeasts, enzymes, and processing methods to efficiently produce diverse, high-value molecules such as biodiesel, organic acids, jet fuels, lubricants, and alcohols.
  • Sustainability — Led by Wendy Yang, Associate Professor of Plant Biology and Geology at Illinois, researchers provide a holistic and systems-based approach to assess the economic and ecological sustainability of CABBI feedstocks, biofuels, and bioproducts from the Feedstock Production and Conversion Themes, at scales that range from the field to the biorefinery to the bioeconomy.

“Our economy and society will be strengthened by enhancing the productivity, resilience and sustainability of our agricultural system,” Leakey said, “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.”

Madhu Khanna, Alvin H. Baum Family Fund Chair and Director of iSEE and a CABBI Sustainability Theme researcher, said iSEE is excited to support CABBI research in partnership with IGB and with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) to enable cutting-edge research at the 320-acre Illinois Energy Farm — “a unique living laboratory that enables researchers to grow trials of promising biofuel feedstocks at the field scale” — and other partner sites.

“One of the world’s major challenges is to provide sustainable sources of energy that meet societal needs as the population continues to grow,” Khanna said, “and Illinois is uniquely qualified to help lead that challenge” with the world-class facilities at IBRL and at IGB — the latter of which oversees and integrates CABBI’s core science team under one roof.

Said IGB Director Gene E. Robinson: “The IGB has over 15 years of experience in successfully addressing grand challenges by transdisciplinary integration of the life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and engineering, and we are proud to host the CABBI team. Our partnership with iSEE has been a successful one for five years, and we look forward to five more years of breakthrough discoveries.”

Susan Martinis, the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Illinois and Chair of CABBI’s Governance Board, noted the university’s strong DOE research portfolio, which is regularly among the top five in the nation. The Center is one of four DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs), joining the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) led by the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University, the Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI) led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“The unique partnership between our research institutes and interdisciplinary collaboration across academic disciplines are hallmarks of research at Illinois,” Martinis said. “IGB and iSEE have built an infrastructure in fields, labs, and virtual environments to allow researchers to do what they do best: solve the world’s most pressing problems. For the CABBI team, that means uniting experts nationwide in agriculture, engineering, genomics, biology, chemistry, economics, and more to deliver on the promise of bioenergy and bioproducts innovation.”

Phase II partner institutions include Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.; HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala.; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Houma, La., Peoria, Ill., and Urbana, Ill.; Alabama A&M University (new addition for Phase II); Colorado State University; Iowa State University; Mississippi State University; Penn State University; Princeton (N.J.) University; Texas A&M University; University of California-Berkeley; University of Florida; University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and West Virginia University.

The Center employs nearly 60 faculty-level researchers — including seven from underrepresented groups who were added since the founding in 2017 — more than 160 postdoctoral researchers and technicians, 90 graduate students, and 50 undergraduates, and 15 support staff. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts include a paid summer research internship for undergraduates from underrepresented groups in STEM, and efforts are underway to find corporate and philanthropic funding to expand that program during Phase II.

“One of the best ways for our nation to strengthen our competitiveness with the rest of the world is to enhance the brilliance that already exists right here in Illinois,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in the DOE news release. “I’m pleased that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation will receive this federal funding to help support groundbreaking research on clean energy, create jobs, address climate change and further secure Illinois’s place as a global leader.”

Added U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill.: “As a graduate of the University of Illinois and its proud representative in Congress, I’m honored to join Secretary Granholm in announcing $590 million that will benefit bioenergy research at my alma mater. For the last five years, the University of Illinois has done groundbreaking research at the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation to revolutionize the role of biofuels and agriculture in our 21st century energy economy. I’m so glad to see funding for this project renewed for the next five years, and I look forward to seeing how these resources will benefit family farmers, our environment, and rural communities across central and southern Illinois.”

The BRC Program was established in 2007 and, in total, led to 4,452 peer-reviewed publications, 845 invention disclosures, 715 patent applications, 298 licenses or options, 261 patents, and 22 start-up companies as of August 2022. Learn more at