U seeks funding for proposed National Center for Biofuels Research

Jason Juno

The National Center for Biofuels Research is a “twinkle” in the eye of the College of Biological Sciences, said its dean, Bob Elde.

But if enough money is raised to fund the center on the St. Paul campus, Elde said, it could be the prominent national area for biocatalysis research.

No funding is secured for the center, but a preliminary design of the building should happen within the next few months, he said. That design will give potential financial backers a concrete idea about the project.

“It’d show them it’s more than just a twinkle in the eye,” Elde said. Still, the project has needs.

Federal sources are the primary funding sources the center will seek, Elde said. The project would cost approximately $30 million.

Faculty members, who would use the building, will talk to architects soon to provide input for the building design, Elde said.

“It needs money, it needs plans, it needs everything a building needs,” he said.

The new building would house equipment the University’s current buildings cannot because of ceiling height, Elde said.

Project advocates want the center to be the best facility in the United States for biocatalysis research, Elde said. The research would include the development of new biofuels and bioproducts, Elde said.

Biocatalysis is a process that takes renewable resources, such as agricultural products or forest products, and uses them for manufacturing processes. Those products then perform like fossil fuels but more naturally, according to a report by Elde and H. Ted Davis, the Institute of Technology dean.

A coming together

Minnesota has abundant renewable energy resources that, Elde said, make the state ideal for this center. This lab would put researchers from many different University departments under one roof, Elde said.

Currently, faculty members convene for committee meetings but are unable to do experiments together, he said.

There is a lack of communication among departments, said Kevin Clay, an environmental sciences sophomore.

He said he learned that first hand when he worked for the University’s sustainability and energy conservation presidential board. The building would help that communication, he said.

“I feel like this is research that needs to be done to limit our dependency on foreign oil,” Clay said.

Roger Ruan, a biosystems engineering professor, said a central building would help communication among faculty members and make their work more convenient.

For example, he said, the last time a company came to the University to get samples analyzed, those samples were taken to both Twin Cities campuses because the facilities are spread out.

A national focus

Elde said a goal for the center would be to get national participation. That participation could include the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, he said.

He said a benefit of national participation is that some people could come and work temporarily and the Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists could use it. Also, Elde said, attracting top faculty members and students to the University is a goal.

The University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, funded with approximately $20 million spread over five years from the state and Xcel Energy’s conservation fund, has given money for good research in the field, Elde said.

“Who knows where (research) goes 10-plus years from now,” he said. “That’s why we need a great lab.”

The new building would be adjacent to the Cargill Building for Microbial and Plant Genomics. Elde worked to get that building, said Peggy Rinard, College of Biological Sciences communications director. That building brought together various schools, including agricultural and medical schools, for research, she said.