Hans-Peter Blaschek checks out an artist’s rendition of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory that will be built at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Blaschek will serve as director of the new facility that will be part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill — There’s a running joke that when a researcher is asked when cellulosic ethanol will be viable, their answer is always “five years away.”That timeframe has officially expired with cellulosic ethanol now being commercially produced at large scale, and a unique facility being built at the University of Illinois will enable further advancements in the industry.

The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory will be a flexible, plug-and-play, pilot-scale facility and analytical laboratory that will bring faculty, students and industry together to develop efficient and economical strategies for the production of renewable bio-based products.

The facility will be housed on the campus of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Construction is expected to begin next month and should be completed in 2016.

University, state, and industry officials gathered recently to celebrate the announcement of the facility.

Gap Filler

“Moving from basic research discoveries in bioprocessing to commercial products requires a unique facility where various materials, including plant and plant co-products, can be tested for their suitability for bioprocessing to value-added products. The IBRL fills this gap in the channel from innovative research to market application and commercial products,” said Hans-Peter Blaschek, lab director and Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition professor emeritus.

“This facility is really about improving the efficiencies of these processes, lowering the cost of these processes so that they can actually be competitive with a petro-chemical-based approach.”

The lab will include classroom space, equipment for processing cellulosic products through the entire value chain, workshops and top-notch training for the next generation of bioenergy leaders.

Finally Fruition

The announcement marked the conclusion of facility plans that began in 1998.

After initial approval in 2009 of $20 million in finance construction by the state’s General Assembly and support from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, an economic downturn put the project on hold.

U of I President Robert Easter acknowledged the many people who kept a vision for the facility, including Gov. Pat Quinn.

“The governor has been a staunch supporter of this project for a long time,” Easter said. “Our deep appreciation goes to Governor Quinn, the General Assembly and the DCEO for their confidence in the ability of the university to contribute significantly through the work that will go on at this facility.”

“The time it took to get the IBRL underway allowed us to design a facility that will be both relevant and useful to faculty, students and industry partners for many years to come,” Blaschek said. “The facility was designed to advance research and education focused on renewable fuels, food co-products and fiber-based processing platforms.”

Future Is Now

Blaschek referred to the “five years away” inside joke on cellulosic ethanol commercialization.

“I’m happy to report that cellulosic ethanol is being commercially produced at large scale. Was it easy to do this? No, it was not,” Blaschek said. “There were a lot of technical bottlenecks along the way that had to be solved. Solutions involved input from engineers, chemists, biologists, economists working together to solve big problems along the value chain.”

Blaschek gave examples of current work that demonstrate the need for such a facility, including recent projects at the intersection of plant and microbial genetics and bioprocessing. These projects brought together faculty expertise not normally found working together.

“Another example is a project we currently have with the Illinois Department of Transportation, specifically looking at the feasibility of incorporating energy crops along Illinois highway right-of-ways,” Blaschek said. “The IBRL will provide the infrastructure to support this type of team-based research and builds off the existing programs and faculty expertise that we already have.”

Bio-Based Economy

Easter said that some might question why there is a need to build a facility to do advanced biofuels and bioproducts research “in an era when petroleum is flowing out of the ground.”

“I would very quickly say we can’t take a short-term view. We have to have a much longer term view in bioprocessing research,” he said.

“Fossil fuel supplies are geologically limited, and it won’t be that far in the future when that supply will be reduced and constrained. Inevitably, the discussion will return again to plant-based materials as a source of fuel and also as a source of bio-based products.

“It’s critical that the university continue to do the work that will be the basis for that new economy which is a critical element to the future of our society.”

Chancellor Phyllis Wise spoke to the many opportunities the lab will provide the state and the university.

“The IBRL will be another great example of the power of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Through the IBRL, we will be able to translate fundamental research into work that will help ensure the economic prosperity of the state,” Wise said.

“There is no other facility like this in the country, and while we’re helping the state push agriculture industry forward, IBRL will provide a great new education opportunity for our students to experience research from its inception to its application.”


Robert Hauser, ACES dean, asked for comments from representatives in industry to close the ceremony, saying successful partnerships between the university and industry would be key to the success of the new facility.

“We’re tremendously excited about this opportunity on campus. We believe it’s something that will lead to technology transfer back into Illinois,” said Chris Olsen, Tate & Lyle vice president of community and government affairs.

“We work on a regular basis with companies developing bioproducts, and we believe that the facility we’re celebrating here today is completing a package that will make Illinois a leader in the sustainable bio-based economy.”

Jim Underwood, executive director of the state of Illinois’ Capital Development, said the project will be designed and constructed to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency, saving energy costs for many years to come.

The development board is the construction arm of the Illinois state government and the organization that will oversee the project.

“The state funding for the $24 million project would not have been available without the passage of the governor’s Illinois Jobs Now! capital bill in 2009,” Underwood said.