Wis. bioenergy research center to open in Madison this fall

By Bryan Sims | January 26, 2012

The newest of three bioenergy research facilities in the U.S. is slated to come online this fall on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, as construction is progressing on schedule for the new 104,000 square-foot Wisconsin Energy Institute. Dedicated to cutting-edge renewable energy and biorefining systems research, the $55 million, five-story building is being built by St. Louis, Mo.-based global architectural firm HOK and Madison-based commercial architectural company Potter Lawson, while Milwaukee-based Mortenson Construction is the general contractor.

The WEI will create a physical hub where scientists from various disciplines can collaborate efficiently. Its lead tenant is the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, one of three bioenergy research centers in the U.S. funded by the U.S. DOE’s Office of Science since 2007. The GLBRC will conduct ongoing research efforts at the WEI to convert lignocellulosic biomass into fuel-grade ethanol and other advanced biofuels and biochemicals. Currently, more than 200 biologists, geologists and engineers associated with the GLBRC are scattered across the UW campus in 15 buildings.

The building is being constructed in two phases, with the second phase anticipated to begin when additional funding is obtained. Among key features of the first phase include: five primary labs that will focus on molecular biology, chemical engineering and organic chemistry research, totaling 25,000 square feet; a 1,400 square-foot applied engineering high-bay lab used for demonstration-scale solar and biofuels projects; a central, shared solution state nuclear magnetic resonance lab that will greatly enhance imaging capabilities and research productivity; two video conferencing rooms to connect researchers with global constituents; and an education and public outreach suite complete with biofuel demonstration gardens.

“This is going to be a great facility for us on the UW-Madison campus for several reasons,” said Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW professor of bacteriology. “On a very simple level it’s going to pull together research programs in engineering, chemistry and molecular biology, which are currently spread out across multiple sites on campus, under one roof and provide a nexus, if you will, for renewable biofuels technology development.”

Because GLBRC staff members are spread out on campus, Donohue added, the new building will also create opportunities for researchers and scientists to comingle at a higher frequency to where fruitful, impromptu interactions can occur. Currently, as it’s set up, Donohue said the majority of communication with colleagues on campus or with collaborators at other sites is via Skype or teleconferencing.

Among the areas of focus pertinent to biorefining technology and conversion development, according to Donohue, include taking cellulose apart from a range of lignocellulosic feedstock such as wood biomass or corn stover, creating a sugar stream and then converting the sugar stream into cellulosic ethanol.

“We believe that is very exciting as a proof of first principle,” Donohue told Biorefining Magazine, “but we recognize it probably takes too long and is too costly to scale. In that sector, we’re very excited that, within the next five years of funding hopefully from the DOE, we’ll begin to increase the speed at which we do that and drive the whole process down.”

A second major focus of research by the GLBRC, Donohue said, is figuring out how to convert as much of the lignocellulosic biomass into both cellulosic ethanol and advanced drop-in advanced biofuels such as finished gasoline, diesel and biojet fuels and other biochemicals.

“To do that we’re designing chemical and microbial processes that will take that same sugar stream and convert it into hydrocarbons,” Donohue said. “Those are much less efficient processes right now so we have to increase yield of those compounds that we get out of that sugar stream.”

Donohue added that the center is also delving into finding efficient and cost-effective methods for converting the lignin fractions found in the biomass into high-value chemicals or fuel precursors that could be used as hydrocarbons.

“That, I think, could be a critical piece for the overall economics of a cellulosic biorefinery because we see cellulosic biorefineries being more cost-effective if they can generate a high-value product out of the largest fraction of the plant biomass that we can provide; just like a current oil refinery that makes a product out of every fraction of the fossil fuel that comes off the well or that comes off a boat,” Donohue said.

In addition to technology development and research programs devoted to cellulosic biofuel research, Donohue said the new building will also house ongoing initiatives in the areas of physical science renewable technologies such as solar and smart grid technology. Other sustainable elements the new building will feature include a 22-kilowatt photovoltaic array, a building design and orientation to optimize natural day-lighting and reduce electric light demand, and the extensive use of sustainable structural and finish materials such as steel, concrete, recycled glass terrazzo flooring and reclaimed wood tiles.

Donohue anticipates the new WEI will officially open late this year or early 2013.

“I expect to be moved in there right around this time next year,” he said.