Proceeding from bench-scale discoveries to factory-scale production has proven to be time consuming and financially daunting for both academia and corporations. Researchers have great world-changing ideas the business world is leery of moving into full production.
Just like Goldilocks, both parties need a “just-right”-sized facility that’s both a little bigger and a little smaller, respectively, to accommodate both bench-scale research and larger proof-of-scale research space such that its commercial applications can be vetted.
There is demand for medium-scale research facilities that can provide proof-of-concept, as long as they are ultimately flexible. Using the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)’s access to grants and public funding, the 40,000-sf Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) on the UIUC’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) campus, fills this production gap by providing a medium-scaled pilot plant to aid academic and corporate research moving from basic research discoveries to commercial production. In this case, plant co-product (biomass) concepts can be tested for scalable value-added bioprocessing models.
With a focus on plants, microbial genetics and bioprocessing, the research projects at IBRL bring together expertise not normally found working together. For example, a partnership with the Illinois Dept. of Transportation looks at the feasibility of incorporating energy crops along Illinois highway right-of-ways on ground that incurs maintenance expenses (mowing), but provides no income. One of IBRL’s projects is to identify grasses that can be grown in these spaces and harvested to provide energy or heat to IDOT’s off-site facilities and vehicles. This would convert a massive number of acres to productive ground across the state.
IBRL is a new university building attached to an existing ACES building, providing a combination of wet and dry labs, offices and classroom spaces. What’s programmatically unique is the need for an extremely flexible, large high-bay and spaces for hazardous processes when converting cellulosic material to energy sources. The ability of the private sector to use the high-bay space provides them intermittent use of a space for proof-of-concept, potential involvement of students for employment and affordable access to complex expensive equipment. The type of plug-and-play equipment is different in proof-of-commercial-viability scale. In the lab, equipment can weigh a pound to several hundred pounds. In the high-bay, the equipment is up to two tons, which not every company can house. In addition, IBRL will have a state-of-the-art advanced bio pre-treatment skid, which is one of only three in the world. The requirements for both the program and this particular machine required extensive coordination with the users and authorities having jurisdiction.
From the university perspective, the IBRL provides several benefits: a revenue stream from the rental of the space(s) from private entities for the upkeep and advancement of the facility and research, private sector input to the bench-scale research, involvement of students to gain real-life experience and potential future employment in the private sector, as well as naming opportunities in the facility. The ultimate goal, however, is to deliver the research to the market at a cutting-edge speed.
IBRL will be a cutting-edge flexible, plug-and-play pilot plant and analytical lab, and delivered through a design-build methodology. IBRL will bring faculty, students and private industry together to shorten the time-frame and lessen the cost of developing efficient and economical strategies for the production of renewable bio-based products.
Susan Turner is a licensed Architect with 30 years experience in delivering integrated buildings. Turner is a Research Design Specialist with Bailey Edward, and acts as their lab designer and technical resource for construction details, specifications and quality review for lab projects. Ellen Bailey Dickson is founding principal of Bailey Edward, a woman-owned architecture, engineering and construction management firm.