On the western edge of campus, a new building now decorates the horizon. The Wisconsin Energy Institute officially opened its doors to the public April 5 for a grand opening that included demonstrations for all ages and a career fair.
The WEI provides a nexus for the campus to come together in research in clean energy technology. The building will provide space for groups researchers working on feedstocks for renewable energy, sustainable fuels, energy storage, carbon neutral electricity; as well as those involved in policy and business related to renewable energy.
The opening of the WEI comes just as the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center funding of $25 million per year was renewed by the U.S. Department of Energy for another five years.
“[The GLBRC’s] mission is to develop knowledge that can be used to convert the non-edible parts of plants into liquid transportation fuels and chemicals that are currently generated from fossil fuels,” said Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of bacteriology.
The GLBRC supports nearly 400 researchers, primarily from UW-Madison and Michigan State University. The team is also complemented by expertise at various industries, DOE national labs and other Universities. The involvement at UW-Madison includes researchers in the departments of agronomy, chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, genetics, bacteriology, and biomolecular chemistry.
The GLBRC is taking a holistic approach to the development of new fuel by assessing the sustainability, energy efficiency and the economic viability of many different technologies. This means re-evaluating everything from what the fuel is being made from, to the final fuel product.
The primary fuel source is cellulosic biomass, or the portions of crops that are not edible. This is in sharp contrast to the current technologies used to make ethanol as a biofuel today. Today ethanol is produced from the edible parts of plants. The challenge facing researchers is the effective processing of this material into fuel, whether that is ethanol or another alternative.
"GLBRC researchers, in partnership with the State of Wisconsin, the State of Michigan and affiliated industries, have made substantial progress toward developing the next generation of advanced biofuels,” said Donohue of the last five years of funding. During this first funding cycle of the GLBRC, the center produced over 400 research publications and nearly 60 patents related to bioenergy. The contributions ranged from agriculture to microbes to chemistry.
Some agricultural studies focused on the sustainability of various agricultural practices and crops, providing insight into what crops to plant where to produce cellulose for biofuel production. Studies also looked at the utilization of marginal lands, or land that was formerly unable to grow edible crops, to grow cellulosic crops.
Within the plants themselves, scientists have discovered simple genetic changes that can result in plant material that is easier to process into fuel. “We have been able to produce what we call 'zip liginins' where we can take the liginin polymer apart at lower temperatures and lower energy inputs in order to process the material,” Donohue said. Lignin, another non-edible component of the plant, presents further opportunity for the creation of biofuels or other chemicals normally made from fossil fuels.
To fully break down the molecules technologies using enzymes or ionic liquids have been developed. The first company to license a technology produced by the GLBRC, Hyrax, utilizes this ionic liquid strategy.
In the next funding cycle, the center will build off of its work from the first cycle, and focus on two main goals. The first, is to develop sustainable practices with enhanced biofuel crops. The second is to increase the efficiency of the conversion of the biomass material into fuels and chemicals.
“Looking forward we are very excited about taking the knowledge that we generated in the first five years and really deploying that into new systems,” Donohue said.