PI: Evan DeLucia (UIUC)
Stephen Long, Stephen Moose, Huimin Zhao, Madhu Khanna, Matthew Hudson, Christopher Rao, Wendy Yang, Vijay Singh, Andrew DB Leakey, et al
Funding Source: DOE
The University of Illinois (Illinois) and 17 partner institutions propose to establish the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) for the development of transformative technologies for the economic and sustainable production of fuels and chemicals from plants. A defining feature of CABBI will be its strong infrastructure critical to a major interdisciplinary research effort: co-location of core research activities in a single physical space; coordinated communications with external partners; and research teams built upon existing, productive collaborations. Our plan for CABBI represents a transformative research model designed to accelerate bioproduct development while retaining the flexibility to assimilate new disruptive technologies whatever their source. CABBI is founded on the “plants as factories” paradigm, in which biofuels, bioproducts, and foundation molecules for conversion are synthesized directly in plant stems. CABBI will be built around three highly interconnected DOE priority research areas: Feedstock Development, Conversion, and Sustainability.
CABBI’s emphasis on the plants as factories approach takes maximum advantage of Illinois’ and partner institutions’ strengths in plant and microbial engineering, genomics, computational biology, ecosystem services and economic analyses. Furthermore, it leverages three key resources: The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), which will house CABBI and facilitate interactions among its highly interdisciplinary research themes; the 320-acre Energy Farm, where over 100 energy crops are grown at scale in a one-of-a-kind specially designed field facility; and the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL), a new $32 million research facility at Illinois designed to focus on commercialization and de-risking of processes utilizing chemical, physical and biological conversion of renewable feedstocks to biofuels and other value-added products.
The growth of a strong bioeconomy requires cropping systems able to produce biomass at sufficient scale, at low cost, and with limited environmental impacts. The 2007 “Breaking the Barriers” report emphasized the significant potential for sustainable bioenergy production, but only if lignocellulose could be efficiently converted to biofuels. Nearly a decade of intensive research has identified species, traits, and environments that could provide high-yielding feedstocks with low inputs and favorable sustainability metrics13, yet there has not yet been widespread adoption of dedicated bioenergy crops, nor use of readily available agricultural residues. Why is this so? We believe three fundamental challenges remain to break the barrier. Foremost is the low economic value of plant biomass, which increases economic risk on the farm. Currently, biomass value must be created through deconstruction and conversion, which has proven difficult to achieve at a cost competitive with either fossil fuels, corn starch or sugarcane sucrose. Enhancing inherent biomass value will increase market pull for renewable feedstocks, rather than trying to push them into an already crowded space of commodity sources for liquid fuels or bioproducts. A second reason is that dedicated biomass crops typically have only one major end use (bioenergy), which decreases market flexibility. And third, low initial density and high moisture content at harvest increases storage and transportation costs.
The CABBI Feedstock Development theme will directly address these challenges by increasing thevalue of biomass from best-yielding grasses and the diversity of compounds that can be produced in their stems. We will focus on three closely related crops, biomass sorghum (BS), energy cane (EC), and Miscanthus (M), as these can each achieve yields of at least 8 dry tons per acre across much of the eastern half of the U.S., with a nearly continuous harvest cycle possible in the Southeast13. A primary objective is to employ an integrated functional genomics approach to increase our knowledge of stem biology in highyielding grasses, which is currently poorly understood, yet critical to the efficient accumulation of favored carbon forms (Fig. II.A.1.). Our discoveries will enable systems-level solutions to feedstock improvement.
We will leverage the power of genomics to acquire biological information, and develop a cyberinfrastructure to derive “actionable genetics” from these large and complex datasets. Recognizing that the fastest route to creating novel value-added traits is through genetic engineering but the available toolbox for biomass grasses is limited, we will create an integrated and parallelized synthetic biology platform to speed development of specialty biofuels and bioproducts.
This effort follows the Design-Build-Test-Learn (DBTL; Fig. II.A.1.) loop that is prominent in process engineering and emphasized by the Conversion Theme. The faster DBTL cycle will accelerate genetic improvements for any trait, but CABBI will initially pursue three high priority trait concepts:
1) high levels of oils and specialty fatty acids in vegetative tissues;
2) shifting stem carbon to more versatile and easily converted carbon forms than recalcitrant lignin;
3) yield efficiency and resiliency to minimize environmental impacts.