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Great Lakes Bioenergy Center

April 30, 2010
As the U.S. increasingly turns its attention—and resources—to bioenergy and biofuels, the Madison Wisconsin Region is emerging as a national leader, both in research and commercialization, evidenced in part by the siting of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007, one of only three Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Research Centers in the U.S.

Funded with an initial five-year, approxmately $130 million-grant ($25 million dispersed annually), the GLBRC was launched to make transformational, game-changing breakthroughs for biofuels, and more specifically cellulosic ethanol. The GLBRC is the only academically-based Bioenergy Research Center; the other two national Centers are the JBEI (led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), and the BioEnergy Science Center (led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

The DOE grant to launch the GLBRC was awarded to the UW-Madison with Michigan State University as the major partner, though the University partners with other universities and private-side partners. The GLBRC has over 300 researchers on staff currently, spread between the UW Madison (roughly 200), partner Michigan State University (approximately 100), and a handful at partner institutions like Illinois State University, Iowa State University, Cornell University, and University of Minnesota.

Siting the GLBRC in the Midwest—and in the Madison Region at UW Madison particularly—was decided because of the pre-existing asset base of the area. Not only is the UW Madison rich in expertise across multiple fields (engineering, agronomy, crop sciences, sustainability, genomics, etc.), the region supports a host of natural resources used in this type of challenge. An earlier DOE “Billion Ton Biomass” study showed an excess of one billion tons of available biomass in the nation, most of which is found in Midwest (particularly Northern Wisconsin and Michigan) that could be used for fuel. Other siting factors include the presence and power of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the proximity of major Chicago and Detroit markets.

Now three years into their first five year grant cycle, the GLBRC continues on its initial course of research, which is diverted to four main research areas: improved plants, improved processing, improved catalysts and sustainable bioenergy practices. Researchers at the Center are doing everything from figuring out how to break down tough cell walls to answering questions like, ‘If we have a processing environment, how can we make that work efficiently, bring costs down, and make sure it’s sustainable (economically and environmentally)?’ While the GLBRC is set up to be a basic research center, there is a strong eye toward patenting and commercialization. WARFs leads the tech transfer group, and a process is in development to commercialize research breakthroughs.

The Center also embodies a strong Wisconsin Idea component, taking the science to the borders of the state and beyond for the public good. GLBRC has a large education and outreach component, which includes a number of Research Experience for Teachers (RET) programs. For example, over the summer, area high school teachers can apply to be part of the RET program, brought into research labs to work with the GLBRC scienitists to develop scientific activities to bring back to their classrooms.  Another program offers research experience for undergrads (generally targeted at underrepresented groups, or students from smaller colleges who might not have as broad a research opportunity as can be found at the UW Madison).

In many ways the GLBRC functions with a simliar outlook to the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID), bringing together researchers from across many different disciplines to make discoveries not otherwise possible; the Center facilitates this with the grant, of course, as well as things like high-throughput services and shared high-end lab equipment: the underlying shared philosophy being that the whole is greater than sum of its parts, moving smart thinking to commercialized potential in the Madison Region and beyond.

Find more information on the GLBRC on their website: or via Twitter @GLBioenergy.

Jennifer Smith, Thrive | | Twitter @thrivehere
Thrive is the economic development enterprise for the eight-county Madison Wisconsin Region.