The future of iPads, cosmetics and transportation fuels might lie in the hands of researchers working at the Iowa State-based National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals. 

The center researches and produces industrial chemicals which are processed into consumer products.

Recently, the National Science Foundation added three years and $12 million to assist the efforts of the research center. 

These funds go toward enhancing the center’s research as well as its educational and outreach programs which focus on chemical research and production.

“There are hundreds of different chemicals that we use as a society,” said Brent Shanks, the center’s director and professor of chemical and biological engineering. “[The word] ‘chemicals’ has a bit of a negative connotation. When [researchers] say chemicals, it’s [the building block] that goes into all the things around us.”

These building blocks, called monomers, bond together to form chains of complex molecules. Called polymers, these consist of repeating molecular units joined together by covalent bonds. 

Shanks said researchers take these polymers and process them into the materials used to make iPads and many other products.

The center is organized into three “thrusts,” or focus areas, to develop these building blocks. Basil Nikolau, the center’s deputy director and professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, said there are projects within each thrust with linking test beds to convert glucose into usable products. One such project is carboxylic acid.

“We’re biologically making carboxylic acid, which nature already does, but it wants to make them a specific chain length, mostly [Carbon]-18,” Shanks said. “We want to be able to control the chain length of those carboxylic acids; there are different uses for [carboxylic acid] depending on the length and size of that molecule.”

Nikolau said shorter chain lengths, such as Carbon-6 and Carbon-8, are desirable because they can be converted to alpha-olefins. 

This end product, alpha-olefins, is used in making detergents, soaps and polymer applications.

The starting material for this project is glucose. Nikolau said the sugar is first exposed to biological catalysis; microbes, such as yeast, convert the sugar into carboxylic acid. This chemical is then handed over to the chemists to make alpha-olefins.

“[Olefins] are the most valuable product,” Nikolau said. “They are ultimately used in industrial chemical applications.”

Currently, most chemicals are derived from crude oil and natural gas. 

Shanks said the center’s overarching goal is to replace fossil fuel-based feedstocks with bio-based feedstocks, such as plant mass. Interdisciplinary research plays an integral role in making the switch.

The research center brings together researchers from across the nation with biology, biochemistry and chemistry backgrounds. 

They combine the skills and abilities in their respective disciplines to solve complex problems.

“To my knowledge, we’re the only center in the world that brings together [researchers] from biology, biochemistry, chemistry all into the same center to work on this problem,” Shanks said.

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