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!
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.”
The ABE department prepares students to address critical challenges within the agriculture sector. Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
“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.
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.”
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, right, visits CABBI fields at the Illinois Energy Farm with Center Director Andrew Leakey and Feedstock Production Theme Leader Emily Heaton.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has committed another round of funding to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to lead the second phase of its Bioenergy Research Center — one of four large-scale DOE-funded research centers focused on innovation in biofuels, bioproducts, and a clean energy future for the country.
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 science.energy.gov.
Sridhar Govind, a graduate of the PSM Bioprocessing and Bioenergy program, recently visited IBRL to collaborate on a project. Photo: Kerri Peters.
URBANA, Ill. – Located at the nexus of agricultural crop production and industries that process those grains, the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) at the University of Illinois provides experiential education to students and helps companies de-risk bioprocessing technologies. The IBRL is among a very select group of institutions that offer an advanced degree in bioprocessing, a critical component in the future of workforce training for the U.S. biomanufacturing industry.
The December 2022 Report to the United States President, “Biomanufacturing to Advance the Bioeconomy,” prepared by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, outlines challenges and strategies for biomanufacturing in the U.S. The report identifies building industry capacity and training a qualified workforce as key areas for growth, and it includes the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy at the U of I in a short list of programs addressing the need for workforce education.
According to the report, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of nine U.S. institutions (four universities and five community colleges) with a specialized degree in this area, and one of only two institutions offering a Master’s degree in bioprocessing.
“The program gave me a fundamental understanding of how the industry functions firsthand. All the classes were focused on the current state of the art in industry, and the IBRL provided me with an opportunity to apply the practices that professors preached,” says Sridhar Govind, who graduated with a PSM in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy in 2018. He now works for San Francisco-based The EVERY Company, which ferments animal-free protein.
“We have seen exponential growth in the biomanufacturing industry. As more companies are founded, and existing companies shift to incorporate more bio-based processes, they need a trained workforce,” says IBRL Executive Director Vijay Singh.
“The IBRL is providing an educational opportunity to our students that is unmatched in the United States. A combination of technical training, safety training, and interaction with industry representatives makes these students highly employable. There is a huge demand for the students who go through our programs, and we would love to find ways to expand our educational opportunities to prepare more students for highly paid careers.”
The scope of the industry interaction has been enormous for students, Singh notes. Over the past four years, 75 companies have completed projects in IBRL with the majority focused on fermentation-enabled biomanufacturing.
Govind adds, “Currently, there are two significant gaps in the workforce. With a historically low unemployment rate, the demand for bioprocess engineers, bioprocess operators, and scientists far outweighs the supply coming through each year. This in turn causes huge problems for companies developing first-of-a-kind technology to spend significant amounts of time and capital in hiring and training the workforce, rather than focusing on developing the technology. There is a necessity to build a workforce at all levels from the ground up, with a mindset that learners today will be leaders tomorrow.”
Singh explains that as students graduate and join the industry, they share IBRL pilot-scale capabilities with their employers and may even bring collaborations to IBRL to improve or commercialize.
IBRL’s location in the corn belt is ideal for bringing together technical competence with practical application. The raw materials for biomanufacturing are corn sugars, which are readily available in Illinois and surrounding states.
“The foundation for the bio-industrial manufacturing industry already exists in the Midwest,” Singh states. “Companies like ADM, Primient, Tate & Lyle, and Ingredion have been doing agricultural processing here for over a hundred years. Now new efforts to advance bio-manufacturing such as BioMADE, a research program on bio-industrial manufacturing technologies funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, and Liberation Labs, a fermentation-based contract research and manufacturing facility, are identifying the Midwest as the best location for this work.”
The combination of abundant biomass, technical and research expertise, and company collaborations position IBRL and the U of I well for being at the center of a biomanufacturing infrastructure hub, in alignment with another stated goal in the President’s report.
“There is a tremendous amount of momentum in this space, and people are realizing that the Midwest is the place to do it. The University of Illinois is in the perfect position to collaborate and educate to meet this growth,” Singh concludes.
Helping the Plant-Based Industry Grow by Accelerating Bioprocessing Technologies
Beth Conerty Associate Director of Business Development, Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Entrepreneurial ingenuity is the wellspring of economic growth.
But transforming an amazing idea into a commercially viable product – especially in the world of green chemistry – requires expensive and scarce economic infrastructure that often can be difficult for entrepreneurs to locate, secure for use, and then operate effectively.
Yet, where those infrastructure and workforce bottlenecks can be overcome, the fast-growing green chemistry and bioprocessing industries are well-placed to deliver economic growth and excellent jobs.
IBRL helps test and scale up green chemistry inventions, drawing an incredible mix of clients, all while educating students with hands-on experience in the lab.
“Our lab works with companies from Fortune 50 companies to the smallest start-ups, and so do the students in our program,” explained Beth Conerty, IBRL’s Associate Director of Business Development.
But with the industry’s explosive growth comes incredible demand for IBRL’s bioprocessing and bio-manufacturing testing and services.
“Certain pieces of our equipment are booked for six or seven months in advance,” explains Beth.
Now, IBRL is seeking to expand. The lab is pursuing financial support from donors and seeking grants in order to break ground on a new facility that would allow it to service more entrepreneurs and industry leaders while training more students to join the fast-growing industry.
Building a best-in-class facility
In developing the idea for a bioprocessing facility four years ago, IBRL’s founders recognized a historical parallel in successful rural economic development.
“Our lab was spun out of the biofuels industry. We had witnessed how much infrastructure and workforce support was needed to grow that sector and we could see the same challenges ahead in the bioprocessing and green chemistry sectors,” explained Beth.
“Fortunately, many of biofuel’s technologies are applicable in our sector, and we capitalized on that common ground,” she added.
Today, the lab works with a broad range of clients in different industries, with about half hailing from the world of green chemistry who are working to develop the ingredients for plant-based products across textiles, packaging, fuels, and other environmentally friendly products. The other half of IBRL’s work is food focused.
“Most of our clients come in having done some work at the bench scale,” said Beth.
That means they have formulated their idea, generated their intellectual property, and formulated a biochemical strain or media “recipe” they hope to commercialize.
But a recipe derived from plant-based feedstocks is just the start. Entrepreneurs and companies must scale-up their formulations into larger and larger quantities at a test facility like IBRL in order to ensure their process works at larger scales.
“Entrepreneurs and companies come to us because they don’t have access to or experience running pilot scale equipment like ours. Usually, they’ve run their formulation in a glass reactor, totaling a couple of liters. We can scale it up from there, working closely with the client,” explained Beth.
IBRL can go bigger – much, much bigger – providing infrastructure and equipment that many entrepreneurs, start-ups, and even mid-sized companies cannot afford.
“We are a fee for service facility,” said Beth, which means even the smallest companies can get access to their impressive array of equipment which would otherwise cost millions to develop independently.
A peek inside the lab
The facility, filled with enormous metal vats and a labyrinth of pipes, is also incredibly flexible – akin to a giant Lego set. Equipment stands on casters, ready to be wheeled across the facility and reconnected as necessary to meet each client’s unique testing needs.
“We often refer to the lab as a giant playground,” said Beth. “And if we’re missing a specific unit required for operation, clients can send their equipment here, or we can lease equipment from vendors.”
“Our largest scale is a 1200-liter working volume and our largest tank is 2,400-liters,” said Beth. “If you are interested in a specific crop, our commodity processing lines are set up for about one to four bushels a day. So that’s up to about 200 kilos.”
IBRL can handle greater quantities as well.
“We’ve certainly been asked to do larger scale, and we’ve done so, batching formulations through our facility over multiple days,” added Beth.
IBRL: seeking support in order to boost the industry
This incredible array of infrastructure makes IBRL one of the largest bioprocessing facilities in the nation.
The six-month wait time to utilize some of IBRL’s equipment also illustrates the essential role the lab plays in the industry, but IBRL is eager to reduce that wait time.
Feasibility studies for a second laboratory building, which would be sited next door, have already begun. State and federal grants could prove especially helpful in accelerating the process.
Paired with the existing facility, the twin labs could create a powerful node of economic growth in central Illinois for this fast-growing sector.
In the four years the lab has been open, it has worked with more than 70 different companies.
“Many of those 70 clients have been with the IBRL team for three-plus years now. They stay with us long-term, launching a campaign with us one month and then returning to their home offices to assess the results. They may tweak the strains before returning for another iteration with us, or they return with a new formulation to test,” said Beth.
An expansion would allow IBRL to widen its scope of regular clients, serving as a local accelerator for an industry quickly becoming an economic growth engine in the Midwest.
IBRL is also feedstock agnostic, accepting every kind of agricultural feedstock and agricultural waste. That breadth of scope ensures IBRL’s work is supporting all types of farming communities.
With an expansion, “we are really hoping to serve more companies and to serve more clients. We need more 1,200-liter reactors. Then, we can say ‘yes’ to more entrepreneurs, to more companies, and speed their time to market,” said Beth.
“And we have the student interest to staff the new facility as well,” she added.
Training tomorrow’s bioeconomy workforce
The green chemistry and bio-manufacturing industry’s growth is creating impressive demand for excellent jobs – and in many cases, the American education system has not kept up.
At IBRL, students gain hands-on experience working with millions of dollars in the latest equipment while interacting with the scores of companies that utilize the facilities, creating powerful job-hunting leads.
“There are a lot of job postings relevant to the student training we do, illustrating the strong demand for our students for full-time jobs and careers. These range from startup companies through the multinationals. And they’re all looking for experience in some way, which we provide,” said Beth.
Job postings suggest new graduates of programs like IBRL can potentially see starting salaries from $60-80k a year. In some places, and with a little more experience, fermentation engineers like those participating in the IBRL program can make $120k annually.
Companies that have already hired IBRL graduates include well-known brand names at leading multinationals such as ADM, Cargill, Kraft-Heinz, and PepsiCo as well as leading startup companies in the space such as The EVERY Company, Motif FoodWorks, and Amyris.
Testing tomorrow’s greatest plant-based products
In addition to training workforce for those well-known food companies, IBRL works with several companies in non-food applications:
The multinational chemical company DSM, which is utilizing IBRL gear to test upcycling of plant waste material,
Tandem Repeat, a synthetic biology company creating polymer alternatives to petroleum plastic products by utilizing natural inputs,
Hyfé Foods, which is using the nutrients from agricultural waste streams to create feedstocks for sustainable products.
Educating policymakers, too
Beth is IBRL’s representative on the Plant Based Products Council’s Advisory Board, providing the group outside counsel and guidance.
“PBPC has taken a lead role in advancing key policy proposals that will support the whole industry. The group serves as a neutral third party, successfully navigating the industry’s needs and bringing the right people to the table,” said Beth.
“PBPC can speak to government in a way that is really helpful, especially to research institutions like ourselves, who cannot engage in the same way,” she added.
Written By: https://pbpc.com/plant-based-leaders-ibrl/
Our current practices of food production use significant amounts of water, land, and other resources, all while generating various agricultural wastes. But food production is so essential that there’s not much we can do about these inherent costs. Or is there?
What if we could dramatically reduce the amount of resources needed to make food? What if we could produce food with nothing more than air, water, and electricity? While it sounds futuristic, bioengineering professor Ting Lu and his team of co-PIs–including professors Paul Kenis (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Mohan Sankaran (nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering), Christopher Rao (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Yong-Su Jin (food science and human nutrition), Keith Cadwallader (food science and human nutrition), and Vijay Singh (agricultural and biological engineering)–believe that this reality might be closer than it seems.
With a steadily increasing global population, a decreasing amount of arable land, and potential production instabilities in the future due to climate change, it is becoming more and more important to identify new ways to produce food. Creating a food source that can be generated anywhere on the planet with minimal resources is the kind of innovation that could make a difference in the future of sustainability.
The team. Starting left and moving clockwise: Ting Lu, Paul Kenis, Mohan Sankaran, Christopher Rao, Vijay Singh, Keith Cadwallader and Yong-Su Jin.
“These types of projects are really exciting because they give us a challenge to think out of the box,” said Lu. “Can we really turn air, water, and electricity into safe, palatable, and nutritious food? It’s a very ambitious goal, but one that we are looking forward to meeting.”
After successfully applying for and receiving a four-year, $10.4 million research grant from the U.S. government agency Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Lu and his fellow co-PIs are ready to get to work on their three-ingredient food.
“The process requires several steps that are each in their own right complex, and then all the steps must be integrated to work together,” said nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering professor Mohan Sankaran, a fellow co-PI on the project. “Some of those steps are to ‘fix’ the N2 and CO2 in air to compounds such as ammonia and acetate. Next, these compounds are fed to microbes to produce biomass containing the proteins and carbohydrates that make up food.”
Currently, Lu envisions this food as more of a supplement than a full meal, with plans to structure this new source of nutrients into three different forms: a shake, a gel, and a dried jerky. Lu has a goal of producing 100 grams of food next year, and a broader goal of one day seeing production plants that create the food on a larger scale.
Not only is this proposed technology faster in food production and better for the environment than our current methods, but it’s highly portable. If this method takes off, food could be possibly produced in the South Pole as easily in the Midwest. Inhabitants of remote islands, mountains, rainforests and beyond could all produce their own food, regardless of land or other natural resources.
But even a food source that’s a scientific marvel has to taste good. “Flavor quality is the main determinant of food acceptance by the consumer,” said co-PI and food science and nutrition professor Keith Cadwallader. “In our project we are taking a practical approach by designing systems that create a variety of generic flavors that mimic certain classes or types of popular flavors, such as “sweet aromatic”, “fruity-berry” and “savory-meaty” flavors.”
It’s just one more element of this three-ingredient food to look forward to: it will come in a wide range of flavors, from sweet to savory, no matter what form it takes.“Our goal is not to make a food with a single flavor but to make foods that can be easily customized for consumer preferences, like when we choose vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate flavors in ice cream shops,” said fellow project co-PI and food science and nutrition professor Yong-Su Jin.
Scale-up of this project and end-to-end integration will be conducted by agricultural and biological engineering professor Vijay Singh, another co-PI on this project. This work is being conducted in his lab and at the Integrated Bioprocessing Research laboratory (IBRL), a translational research facility at the University of Illinois.
“At IBRL, we have most of the bioprocess equipment required to conduct full demonstration of this exciting project creating food from air, water and electricity,” said professor Singh, who also serves as Executive Director of IBRL.
Clearly a project of this scale requires expertise on many levels. Lu was quick to point out that their project is a true team effort that benefits tremendously from the breadth of research and collaborative culture of the University.
“I am so grateful to be a member of this interdisciplinary research team,” said Jin. “Our UIUC team is the only one comprising all team members from a single research institution among the DARPA awardees.”
It’s rare to have the opportunity to work on a project that incorporates so many disciplines and could one day have an effect on such a basic element of our everyday lives, and Lu is eager to see the project through.
“If successful, our project will have a potentially transformative impact,” Lu said. “We’re grateful to DARPA for this opportunity and excited to be able to work on something that we feel special.”
I am Anto Nirmal, a Bioprocessing and Bioenergy graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Over the summer, I worked as a Process Development Intern at Forge Biologics, a gene therapy manufacturing company. This opportunity provided a more in-depth understanding of how industrial research works and confirmed my interest in it. I was able to connect with a lot of people and learn more from their experiences. Through my internship experience, I understood the importance of planning and time management while designing and performing multiple research studies. The satisfaction I got out of this internship was immense and I enjoyed working in a lab setup. As a part of the internship program, we volunteered at Mid-Ohio Collective Foodbank, where we worked as a team supporting the initiative. The overall experience was fruitful, and the memory would be cherished forever. After finishing my undergraduate in Biotechnology, I decided to do my master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy to learn and gain more skills related to the processing of bioproducts. I also believe that doing this program unlocks my career aspirations that are otherwise blocked, enabling me to be an asset when I enter the workforce.
To find out more about the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy, use this link.
I interned at Neste US this summer in Houston, TX. Neste produces renewable diesel (RD) and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for companies across the globe, and they are an active participant in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) market. I applied for an internship with Neste because I am studying bioenergy here at UIUC, and I want to work in the renewable fuels industry after graduating.
I was placed on the Feedstock Growth team, whose responsibilities include researching potential sourcing partners and investigating future feedstocks that meet their technical and sustainability standards. I loved talking with all the members on the team and hearing about their roles, the keys that make the team successful, and learning about where the feedstock market is heading in the future. My goals for the summer were twofold. The first was to create dynamic dashboards that track several feedstocks in the US, like used cooking oil, corn oil, and animal fats. We incorporated supply and demand data, export figures, and historical prices, and combined them with market research forecasts. This data aggregation allows the Feedstock Growth team to visualize market trends in real time to assist with strategy and decision making. The second goal was to research commercial deep fryers to understand the innovations and technologies that would impact the used cooking oil market in the near future. Fryer companies are advertising reduced oil volume (ROV) fryers that would save restaurants 40%-50% of their cooking oil. I learned that many market dynamics would factor into ROV adsorption rates in the next 3-6 years.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Neste and in Houston. All the employees who worked in the office were really supportive and eager to answer any questions we had. All the interns hung out outside of work and got along really well. A highlight was Food Truck Thursday, where a new food truck would arrive and we’d all race down to try it. The internship also aligned with a visit from the CEO from Finland, and all the interns had a chance to meet him and tell him about our experiences and work progress. I’m now 100% committed to working at a place like Neste after graduating.
To find out more about the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy, use this link.
In June of 2022, IBRL received a generous donation of a filter press, from CSL Behring. This filter press will help create a more defined product by separating the solids and liquids and help allow multiple client projects to be run simultaneously in IBRL’s pilot plant. Another benefit of the filter press is that it can be tuned to client needs. The new filter press is housed in IBRL. The IBRL staff would like to say thank you to CSL Behring company for your wonderful contribution and cannot wait to use it for our future projects.
URBANA, Ill. – Fermentation is a crucial manufacturing step for many industries, including food, feed, cosmetics, and fuel. The fermentation process converts agricultural feedstocks to valuable materials with the use of microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. It provides ingredients for products ranging from meat and dairy substitutes to cosmetics made without animal proteins.
The fermentation field is growing rapidly, and companies need trained employees to manage the equipment and technical processes. That’s why the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) at the University of Illinois recently shared its expertise on fermentation in an intensive short course for industry practitioners.
The three-day course welcomed 25 participants from 10 companies.
“IBRL’s unique business model of connecting companies with academia and education makes us the perfect host for courses geared toward industry representatives. There is so much knowledge in IBRL and the University of Illinois faculty, and we are helping find new and innovative ways to transfer that knowledge and help more companies grow successfully,” says Vijay Singh, executive director of IBRL and distinguished professor of bioprocessing.
While fermentation courses are offered at other institutions, many of them are mostly theoretical. At IBRL, all participants got hands-on experience running pilot-scale fermentation and downstream purification equipment.
“The hands-on portion of the course was extremely useful. It is far easier to imagine the process when you can see the equipment firsthand,” says Kathryn Kruziki, principal engineer at General Probiotics.
“The course gave a nice range of information from strain development, bench scale fermentation, and transfer to pilot scale. It also discussed practical considerations as you go from pilot to industrial scale, including an extremely useful talk on economic modeling. I felt it covered a lot of ground effectively,” she adds.
General Probiotics, a Minnesota-based startup company, cooperates with IBRL as part of BioMADE, a research program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. BioMADE encompasses multiple projects and partners conducting research on bio-industrial manufacturing technologies.
“We are developing engineered probiotic bacteria for poultry and are now at a stage in which we need to scale up production for FDA trials and verify the economic feasibility at an industrial scale. We thought the course could be an excellent way for us to progress our know-how in these areas,” Kruziki says. “The course strengthened our confidence in IBRL and our desire to work with them on future projects.”
Several of the companies whose employees attended the course have ongoing collaborations with IBRL, and some are donating equipment or materials.
“CSL Behring is donating a filter press to IBRL, and Primient, a global supplier to the fermentation industry, aids in sourcing critical fermentation substrates in this challenging and ever-evolving economic environment,” Singh says. “We greatly appreciate these industry contributions that help us more effectively support the expanding bioprocessing industry.”
IBRL plans to offer the fermentation course annually. Those interested in participating can contact Beth Conerty, IBRL associate director of business development, at email@example.com for more information.