Rice part of NSF-funded Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

Rice part of NSF-funded Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

Rice University is part of the new Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) introduced at Iowa State University with the awarding of an $18.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF).


Ka-Yiu San, Rice’s E.D. Butcher Professor in Bioengineering, played a part in the center’s creation and will lead one of its three research areas. ”I am quite excited about the formation of the center, which will focus on developing new technologies to produce chemicals from biorenewables. I believe the center will have a significant impact on the chemical industry and the environment,” he said.

San and Ramon Gonzalez, a former Iowa State professor who is now the William W. Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice, will play a key role in the center’s microbial metabolic engineering thrust. They will develop microbial systems to produce chemicals efficiently from renewable resources, such as glucose.

The goal of CBiRC is to develop technologies that can transform the petroleum-based chemical industry into one based on plants and other biorenewables. The center’s focus will be to develop catalysts for the production of biorenewable chemicals. A unique strategy will be to integrate two research communities that have not traditionally worked together: those studying biocatalytic technologies and those studying chemical catalytic technologies.

Brent Shanks, an Iowa State professor of chemical and biological engineering and a former employee of Shell Chemicals, will direct the center. He said it will take a lot of research, education and training to develop a sustainable and biorenewable chemical industry.

The petrochemical industry has been developing catalysts and other technologies for producing fuels and chemicals from fossil fuel molecules for about 80 years, he said. Researchers working with bio-based molecules are just starting to develop the catalysts and technologies necessary to produce chemicals.

The five-year grant is part of the foundation’s Generation Three Engineering Research Centers Program, which creates university and industry partnerships to promote innovation, transform engineered systems, advance technology and produce engineering graduates who can creatively contribute to a global economy.

Another objective is to educate students to be creative, innovative engineers by exposing them to multidisciplinary research that can advance the production of biorenewable chemicals.

Along with Rice, CBiRC’s academic partners are the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the University of California, Irvine. Affiliated faculty will also come from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. International partners are the Fritz-Haber-Institute of the Max-Planck-Society in Berlin, Germany, and the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby.

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