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Robert Brown, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering,
   (515) 294-7934
Charles Glatz, Chemical Engineering, (515) 294-8472
George Kraus, Chemistry, (515) 294-7794
Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778


AMES, Iowa -- Beginning this fall, Iowa State University students can learn how to turn plants into products for the emerging biobased products industry.

Iowa State faculty are creating three multidisciplinary academic programs - including a new graduate major - on the science and technology behind biobased products. They have received a National Science Foundation and two U.S. Department of Energy grants totaling more than $1 million to fund course development and start up.

In addition to the new graduate major, the new programs are an area of specialization for master's and doctoral students and new laboratory modules for undergraduates in chemical engineering.

Faculty heading the programs are Robert Brown, professor of chemical engineering and mechanical engineering; Charles Glatz, professor and chair of chemical engineering; George Kraus, professor of chemistry; and Lawrence Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research and professor of food science and human nutrition.

Corn, soybeans, switchgrass and other plant and crop-based resources can be used to replace petroleum-based ingredients in the manufacture of value-added products like liquid fuels, commodity chemicals, lubricants, plastics and building materials.

In order for the biobased products industry to grow, key technologies need to be developed. These include technologies for separation to purify value-added products and to convert plant materials into simpler components such as sugars from which products can be. Very few scientists and engineers, however, have been appropriately trained in this burgeoning area, Brown said.

"The research and development that will drive this industry draws from many disciplines like chemistry, microbiology, agronomy and engineering. Students will need to learn outside traditional academic disciplines," he said.

The new master's-level graduate major in bioresource engineering may be the first of its kind nationwide, Brown said. It will be administered by the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, an Institute for Physical Research and Technology center that provides support to faculty working in biobased products. Brown is the center's director.

Three new courses will serve as the foundation for the graduate major. The lecture, laboratory and seminar courses also will provide the area of specialization in biobased products for graduate students. Kraus and colleagues developed the team-taught, multidisciplinary courses for students in agriculture, science and engineering.

"We envision the three courses as a work in progress," Kraus said. "As the field of biobased products evolves and as new faculty members with interests in biobased products research enter the university, the content of our courses will change."

The lecture course will cover current applications, biological and chemical conversions, case studies, economics, environmental impact and future value-added applications.

The laboratory course will include experiments in milling, extrusion, biomaterials and polymer. Students will use facilities of the Center for Crops Utilization Research, a center of the Plant Sciences Institute administered by the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.

In the seminar course, academic researchers and scientists from Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Grain Processing Corporation, Dow Chemical, DuPont, 3M and other companies will discuss current topics pertinent to the biobased industry. The seminar course will be offered this fall, Brown said

The new graduate major in bioresource engineering will consist of a 30-credit program of coursework, research and industrial interaction.

"The program is designed to help students develop a systems perspective of the biobased products industry with an appreciation of problems in plant sciences, production, conversion and utilization," Brown said.

In addition to the three new courses, students will take technical electives from existing classes in molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry, agricultural and biosystems engineering, food science, chemical engineering and other disciplines.

Research will emphasize new pathways for using lignocellulose (such as corn stover, switchgrass and woody crops) in value-added products. "The existing research emphasis is on value-added corn and soybeans. Our new efforts will focus on value-added products from agricultural residues that are currently underutilized," Brown said.

Research will address problems of interest to the biobased products industry. Research projects will be built around joint activities involving Iowa State, the Iowa Energy Center, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and collaborating companies, Brown said.

In the third new academic program, Glatz and other chemical engineering faculty are developing four new laboratory modules on chemicals from biorenewables. The modules will be added to new and existing undergraduate courses and could be integrated into the two new graduate programs.

"Our focus will be on bringing important emergent areas from the development of biorenewable sources of chemicals into new and existing courses and to let students experience the differences between process and product development," Glatz said.

The modules include metabolic analysis of a yeast fermentation (a model system for plant metabolic engineering), bioinformatic analysis of enzyme function for cellulases (used for chemical conversion of plant materials), expanded bed chromatography for capture of recombinant proteins from transgenic crops, and development of materials for skin graft growth (a high-value use of biomaterials). The first laboratory module will be offered next spring.

The Department of Energy grants to Brown and Kraus will be administered through the Institute for Physical Research and Technology.


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