July 29, 2014

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About the Center

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The mission of Center for Biorefining is to coordinate the University efforts and resources to conduct exploratory fundamental and applied research; provide education on bioenergy, biochemicals and biomaterials; stimulate collaboration among the University researchers, other public sector investigators, and private investigators involved in biobased production technology development; promote technology transfer to industries; and foster economic development in rural areas.

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Why Biorefining?

Minnesota, the United States and world economies depend on fossible oil, a finite and nonrenewable energy and chemical feedstock source. Though the exact timing of fossil oil running out is debated, it is inevitable that supplies of fossil oil will decline in the future and will become more expensive. This puts tremendous pressure on already existing shortages and rising retail prices of energy sources, growing interest in national energy security, and concern about the diversity, health, and sustainability of our global ecosystems. We must find alternative energy and chemical feedstock sources to supplement the fossil oil supply in order to maintain sustainable economic growth and reduce our dependence on imported fossil oil.

One viable option is to derive energy, materials, and chemicals from biomass – an infinite and renewable source. A new concept “Biorefinery,” which is equivalent to a petroleum or oil refinery, is being widely accepted throughout the world. This concept suggests that a wide range of products such as fuels, materials, chemicals, etc., which are traditionally derived from fossil oil, can also be produced from biological resources.

Objectives of the Center

  • Establish a network of multi-disciplinary researchers, state and federal government officials, and private-sector organizations and entities who share the same interest in development and use of biorefining technologies
  • Identify opportunities and develop and market technologies for bioenergy, biochemical, and biomaterial production
  • Identify and solicit public and private funding sources
  • Design and facilitate research and demonstration programs
  • Facilitate initial trials, pilot testing, and bioproduct analysis
  • Incorporate biobased technology into existing courses and curricula and educate the public and promote the use of bioproducts

Benefits of Biobased Industry

The benefits of biobased products and bioenergy are summarized as follows according to “The Biobased Products and Bioenergy Roadmap” created in December 2002 by the USDA and DOE Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee:

  • Enhanced national energy security
  • Improved environmental protection
  • Rural economic growth
  • U.S. leadership in global markets

In addition, promoting the non-food area of agriculture will boost a new, diversified biobased economy in Minnesota and the nation.

Is it feasible?

Also in the same document, the trends supporting the emergence of biobased products and bioenergy are identified as:

  • Rapid progress in biotechnology
  • Increasing potential of biobased products and bioenergy
  • Growing interest in distributed production
  • Emerging technologies for efficient biorefineries.

In the past two decades, tremendous efforts have been made to produce biological substitutes for petrochemical feedstocks. Some technically feasible approaches are available to convert biomass to fuels and biopolymers. However, no large-scale commercial facility is operating to date. This situation can be attributed to a combination of the following three factors: technical inadequacy, economic noncompetitiveness, and lack of understanding of the industrial need. Biobased production, or biorefining, is still largely unexplored territory where there are many business and research opportunities.

Minnesota has a large portion of agricultural and natural resources that can be used as feedstock for biorefineries. However, adapting existing fossil-fuel-based products and developing new processes and systems for production and utilization of biobased products from these resources are absolutely necessary.

University of Minnesota’s Capability

The proposed center will consist of a network of multi-disciplinary researchers holding teaching, research, and/or extension positions at the University, as well as industry and government cooperators. This combination of the University’s multi-disciplinary experts and interested private and government investigators will enable us to establish excellent research programs and attract funding to develop viable technologies for biorefining of biomass. The University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota are in unique positions to develop and support biobased industry for a number of reasons (Elde and Davis, 2001):

  • Strong academic disciplines and organizations
  • Eagerness among faculty and academic leaders to build “dream teams” of faculty and scientists to extend and expand this strength into a leading-edge research university for biobased production
  • Pioneering and proven success by Cargill LLC
  • Domination of Minnesota industry by material-based or material-dependent companies
  • Large portion of Minnesota economy dependent upon agriculture and natural resources, the raw materials for biobased products.

Relevance to CFANS’ Compact Statement

The mission and objectives of the center align with CFANS’ priorities.

  • Emphasizing Exemplary Education: The center will support exemplary research-based undergraduate and graduate education and outreach in biobased production and biorefining. Faculty members participating in the center will expand their expertise through research activities and interaction with the industries, which will benefit the University’s undergraduate and graduate programs. Biorefining minor courses will be developed and taught by the center faculty.
  • Promoting Safe and Healthy Foods: Some isolates from biomass can be used as natural food ingredients to replace artificial ones and thus promote healthy foods. Some isolates from biomass may have medical benefits.
  • Improving Environmental Quality: The center will promote environment conservation through : (1) producing environmentally friendly energy and materials, (2) utilizing waste materials, and (3) reducing discharge of waste biomass to the environment;
  • Enhancing Agricultural Systems: The center’s research programs will promote biological and socio-economic substantiality and reduce environmental impact of value-added agricultural and horticultural production systems.
  • Revitalizing Minnesota’s Rural Communities: Our research will help the rural communities to establish non-food agriculture and related industries, produce value-added products, and solve waste treatment problems.
  • Serving Urban Communities: Our research, development and outreach activities will bring new products to satisfy demands from urban consumers and new investment opportunities for industries of the urban communities. The proposed center will also provide a platform for researchers, crop producers, processors, and investors of the urban communities to interact and collaborate.