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NSF Launches an ERC for Biorenewable Chemicals

September 8, 2008

NSF Launches an Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announces an award to Iowa State University and its partners to establish a new NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC). The ERC will develop interdisciplinary research and education programs that address an important societal issue and provide the foundation for new industries through innovation. NSF will invest $18.5 million in the Center over the next five years.

Since 1985 the ERC program has fostered broad-based research and education collaborations in close partnership with industry that focus on making technological breakthroughs and developing new products and services. A new generation of five NSF ERCs will place a greater emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship and on international collaboration and cultural exchange.

"The Gen-3 ERCs have been designed to build on the well-developed understanding laid down by the two previous generations of ERCs," says Lynn Preston, the leader of the ERC Program. "We have added to Gen-3 ERCs several new dimensions designed to speed the innovation process and prepare engineering graduates who are innovative, creative, and understand how to function in a global economy where engineering talent is broadly distributed throughout the world. We expect these ERCs to make even more significant impacts on the competitiveness of U.S. industry than their predecessors."

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) seeks to transform the existing petrochemical-based chemical industry to one based on renewable materials. Nature uses enzymes as biocatalysts to convert sugars into various chemicals, which chemical catalysts can then turn into the desired chemical products. The production of industrial chemicals from renewable materials such as plants is still in its infancy, and significant fundamental understanding and technological developments of new bio- and chemical catalytic systems are required. CBiRC's research will focus on understanding and exploiting the integration of biocatalytic and chemical catalytic technologies to efficiently produce biorenewable chemicals. With projected long-term increases in the price of oil, developing cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based catalysts is essential to the viability of the chemical industry and to the nation.

The new processing paradigms with biorenewables will necessitate educating and training engineers and scientists who can look beyond conventional chemical production approaches and compete in a global economy. CBiRC educational programs will address this need through a suite of undergraduate courses, student research projects, and a new graduate minor in biorenewable chemicals.

CBiRC will be based at Iowa State University (ISU), in partnership with Rice University, the University of California at Irvine, the University of New Mexico, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Germany and the Technical University of Denmark will contribute additional expertise and international connections.

Nine industry partners will guide CBiRC's strategic planning for research and education and technology transfer. In addition, start-up firms will carry out translational research in partnership with the faculty and students. The ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and venture capital firms will further stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship.

Cecile J. Gonzalez, National Science Foundation,

Media Contacts
Joshua A. Chamot, NSF, (703) 292-7730,
Mike Krapfl, Iowa State, (515) 294-4917,

Program Contacts
Lynn Preston, NSF (703) 292-5358,
Fred Heineken, NSF, (703) 292-7944,

Principal Investigator
Brent Shanks, (515) 294-1895,

Related Websites

NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC):

Iowa State press release:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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