MaryAnn Sherman, left, program coordinator for the Bioeconomy Institute, and Tonia McCarley, administrative director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, look over one of the laboratories inside the Biorenewables Research Laboratory. Photo by Duane Tinkey
MaryAnn Sherman, left, program coordinator for the Bioeconomy Institute, and Tonia McCarley, administrative director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, look over one of the laboratories inside the Biorenewables Research Laboratory. Photo by Duane Tinkey

It takes more than state-of-the-art laboratories to spur the next important scientific discovery. In many cases, bringing together faculty and student researchers from diverse disciplines is key to the next significant breakthrough.

The new Biorenewables Research Laboratory (BRL) at Iowa State University is expected to spark that kind of collaboration as the university's hub for biorenewables research.

The four-floor, 70,000-square-foot facility, the first phase of a planned three-wing complex, brings together three primary research organizations under one roof: the 2-year-old Bioeconomy Institute and two of its affiliate research centers, the National Science Foundation Engineering Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) and the Biobased Industry Center. Administrators moved into the building earlier this month, and the laboratories and offices will be fully occupied by the end of the summer.

"The intent of this building is to bring cohesion to the diverse efforts in biorenewables on campus and to facilitate collaboration among the many faculty at Iowa State who are performing research in this area," said Tonia McCarley, administrative director for the CBiRC.

"The idea is that we want to replace fossil fuels with biorenewable resources in the production of chemicals, fuels and other materials, thereby transforming the chemical industry, among other things, for a sustainable future," she said. "It's just appropriate that we're now in this soon to be [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)]-certified building that has sustainable and renewable materials incorporated into it. We're very excited about it."

Located north of Howe Hall on the west end of the campus, the BRL is one of several major construction projects in various stages of completion at Iowa State. (see sidebar)

At least nine university departments will come together at the facility, in disciplines ranging from chemical engineering and biochemistry to microbial metabolic engineering and food science. Each research floor on the upper three levels will accommodate 20 graduate students and four post-doctoral researchers, as well as offices for four faculty or research staff, in an open floor plan designed to promote collaboration.

"So it will be very interdisciplinary, looking at things on a systems-level basis," McCarley said. "It kind of takes faculty out of their home (departments) and brings them here."

The center, which was funded through a $32 million legislative appropriation, includes chemistry and microbiology labs for research, two large teaching laboratories, administrative and faculty offices and graduate student office areas. It also features a two-story "high bay" facility for larger, pilot-scale research projects in thermochemical biomass conversion.

The building incorporates cost-saving, eco-friendly design elements that should qualify it for LEED gold certification. In addition to natural lighting, the building uses recyclable building materials such as the doors and cabinetry made from bamboo. The building is also equipped with a rainwater collection and storage system, and a portion of the structure has an energy-saving vegetated roof.

"The laboratories are what are most exciting for me," said McCarley, an ISU graduate. "When I was a student, taking chemistry lab, you felt like you were in this dark, dingy laboratory. But with the labs in this building, we're bringing natural light in that will penetrate the entire building."

All of the research the BRL will house stems from the university's biosciences initiative, a goal established in 2002 by ISU President Gregory Geoffroy. The biosciences initiative's research efforts extend across the entire spectrum of biorenewable products as well as addressing social, economic and environmental issues, said MaryAnn Sherman, program coordinator for the Bioeconomy Institute.

"Where one department might focus on one product, we're talking about the entire value chain," she said.

The university has a $72.3 million expansion of the BRL planned that would house the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering, but that project is on hold for now because the Legislature did not approve a $58.6 million funding request this past session. However, the ISU Foundation has raised more than $11 million in private donations toward a nearly $14 million goal.

That fund-raising goal could increase if the estimated cost of the project is adjusted upward in the next fiscal year, said Dave Gieseke, the foundation's executive director of communications.

Though the first phase of the BRL was entirely state-funded, much of the research activity within the facility is externally funded. The CBiRC, for instance, is funded by a five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, McCarley said.

"I think the National Science Foundation definitely wants to see a strong institutional commitment," she said. "The fact that we were building this facility to bring together the different disciplines to do the research in areas of national concern, I think that was a factor in them selecting us for the project. During the pre-award visit, we showed them a schematic of the building, and they were very impressed."

Additional funding for the CBiRC comes from the university as well as from dues from nine member companies. Similarly, the Biobased Industry Center now has 14 industry partners. Several proposals for additional research funding are pending, McCarley said.

The state-of-the-art laboratories inside the BRL have already proved to be a significant recruiting tool for the departments. For instance, interest in the biorenewables resources and technology graduate program, the first graduate-level program of its kind in the nation, has increased in anticipation of the completion of a demonstration laboratory for the program on the building's ground floor, Sherman said. More than 60 graduate students have completed that program since it began in 2004.

"It's very attractive for industry partners to have students well-focused in that area coming out of our institution," McCarley said. "And just recently, we added a certificate program, which is great for folks who are already on the front lines in the industry to get additional schooling while they're in the work force."