CABBI: Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation

The Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is developing novel ways to grow, transform, and market biofuels and other bioproducts by integrating recent advances in genomics, biosystems design, and computational biology to increase the value of biomass crops. CABBI represents a unique, game-changing research model designed to accelerate bioproduct development from the bench to industrial scale, while retaining the flexibility to assimilate disruptive technologies, regardless of their source. The center aims to develop the predictive capability to determine which feedstock combinations, regions and land types, market conditions, and bioproducts have the potential to support the ecologically and economically sustainable displacement of fossil fuels.

High-Yielding Sorghum Grass.

High-Yielding Sorghum Grass. Sorghum, a key bioenergy and bioproduct feedstock, is harvested at the 320-acre Illinois Energy Farm. [Courtesy CABBI]

CABBI is advancing transformative technologies for the economic and sustainable production of biofuels and bioproducts from plants. Over five years, CABBI aims to provide:

  • A regionally adaptive, yet national-scale platform for grass-based biorefining using feedstocks with improved yield and resource-use efficiency.
  • A broad set of platform microorganisms, as well as automated tools to engineer them, to develop value-added products from plant-produced feedstocks or substrates.
  • An integrated economic and environmental framework for determining feedstock supply and its sustainability.

Another of CABBI’s fundamental objectives is to ensure translation and commercial deployment of its research results—whether in the form of new plant breeds; new biofuels and other biobased chemicals, lubricants, and adhesives; newly tested processes and applications; or new understanding about economic or ecological impacts.

Research Focus Areas

CABBI’s research is organized into three focus areas: feedstock production, conversion, and sustainability.

Feedstock Production: Growing the Right Crops. CABBI is founded on the “plants as factories” paradigm, in which biofuels, bioproducts, high-value molecules, and foundation molecules for conversion are synthesized directly in plant stems. This approach circumvents the challenges of developing efficient methods to deconstruct lignocellulose, while still retaining residual biomass for deconstruction by traditional or emerging methods. CABBI researchers are focusing on sorghum, sugarcane, energy cane, and Miscanthus—high-yielding grasses that grow throughout the rain-fed eastern United States including on marginal soils. These grasses are the world’s highest biomass producers, with demonstrated potential in transgenic sugarcane for oil accumulation in vegetative biomass (Huang et al. 2017). CABBI research centers on increasing the yield efficiency and resiliency of these grasses to minimize environmental impacts; shifting stem carbon to more versatile and easily converted carbon forms than recalcitrant lignocellulose; and building high levels of oils and specialty fatty acids in vegetative tissues—all with the goal of making the plant factory more efficient.

Illinois Biological Foundry for Advanced Biomanufacturing (iBioFAB).

Illinois Biological Foundry for Advanced Biomanufacturing (iBioFAB). iBioFAB is a fully integrated computational and physical infrastructure that supports rapid design, fabrication, validation, and quality control, as well as analysis of genetic constructs and organisms. [Courtesy CABBI]

Conversion: Turning Plants into High-Value Chemicals. CABBI is enhancing understanding of native yeast (e.g., Saccharomyces cerevisiae) metabolism and physiology and applying this knowledge to engineer organisms for production of natural and non-natural compounds. As part of this research effort, CABBI scientists are further developing a versatile, automated “biofoundry” for rapidly engineering microbial strains that can efficiently produce diverse, high-value bioproducts such as biodiesel, organic acids, jet fuels, lubricants, and alcohols. CABBI is also accelerating the design-build-test-learn framework to overcome challenges associated with designing biological systems to produce non-natural compounds.

Sustainability: Improving the Environmental and Economic Bottom Line. CABBI is developing new technoeconomic and lifecycle analyses and integrating systems-level modeling to examine economic and ecological tradeoffs associated with products and processes generated under the feedstock production and conversion themes. Using production-scale field experiments, CABBI is developing a mechanistic understanding of the plant, soil, microbe, and climate interactions that underlie the productivity and ecosystem services of different feedstocks and investigating technological and economic pathways to a sustainable and resilient bioeconomy.

Collecting Miscanthus Root Samples.

Collecting Miscanthus Root Samples. Miscanthus and sorghum root samples are analyzed for biomass and distribution patterns at the Illinois Energy Farm, and those data are evaluated alongside carbon and nitrogen cycling data. [Courtesy CABBI]

Also key to this work are the improvement and integration of ecosystem and economic models, which are used to show how biofuel mandates and other policies can be designed to meet energy and multidimensional environmental goals without lowering food production.

By developing this overarching framework for a closed-loop integration of research and outcomes among the feedstock, conversion, and sustainability themes, CABBI experts are engaged in the innovative research needed for a sustainable bioeconomy.

Industry Partnerships

One of CABBI’s objectives is to translate its research results to commercial deployment. CABBI and the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory have an industrial Affiliates program to engage industry in cutting-edge bioprocessing techniques and derisk new intellectual property (IP) for transition to commercialization. Industrial Affiliates get a first look at newly developed technologies in bioprocessing and bioenergy, as well as the associated IP, through an annual biotechnology showcase. Industry representatives also sit on CABBI’s strategic advisory board, bringing a corporate perspective to its research directions.

CABBI-Sponsored Students Present Their Research.

CABBI-Sponsored Students Present Their Research. University of Illinois undergraduate students earned a silver medal at the 2019 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. [Courtesy CABBI]

Education and Outreach

CABBI’s outreach efforts help students from grade school to undergraduate levels better understand bioenergy feedstock production; conversion methods to produce valuable fuels and chemicals; and economic and environmental sustainability in the field, the laboratory, and the world. Two such hands-on efforts included: (1) in collaboration with the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, presenting the annual World of Genomics held in 2019 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.; and (2) sponsoring and advising University of Illinois undergraduates in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The Illinois iGEM research project, conducted in summer 2019, explored how glyphosphate, an ingredient in many commercial herbicides, can be degraded into nontoxic components using a genetically modified bacterium.

CABBI Partners

  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (lead institution)
  • Archbold Biological Station (Venus, Florida)
  • Boston University (Massachusetts)
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York)
  • Colorado State University (Fort Collins)
  • HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (Huntsville, Alabama)
  • Institute for Systems Biology (Seattle, Washington)
  • Iowa State University (Ames)
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, California)
  • Mississippi State University (Starkville)
  • Princeton University (New Jersey)
  • Texas A&M University (College Station)
  • University of California (Berkeley)
  • University of Florida (Gainesville)
  • University of Idaho (Moscow)
  • University of Nebraska (Lincoln)
  • University of Wisconsin (Madison)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (Houma, Louisiana; Peoria and Urbana, Illinois)
  • West Virginia University (Morgantown)

CABBI Contacts