GLBRC: Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is a cross-disciplinary research center led by the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison. With Michigan State University (MSU) and other collaborators, GLBRC is developing biobased fuels and products that are economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

GLBRC scientists envision a future in which dedicated energy crops grown on nonagricultural land provide the raw materials for major portions of society’s liquid transportation fuels and chemicals that are currently derived from petroleum. This future will create new economic opportunities for biorefineries, farmers, and rural communities and provide climate benefits without diverting land from food production. To fulfill this vision, the center is addressing key knowledge gaps that currently limit the industrial-scale production of specialty fuels and products from such purpose-grown energy crops.

Research Themes

Digestible Lignin.

Digestible Lignin. GLBRC researcher Rebecca Smith focuses on how to make lignin more digestible. Lignin is the notorious hard-to-process “glue” that lends plant tissues their structure and sturdiness. [Courtesy GLBRC]

The technoeconomic success of lignocellulosic biorefineries hinges on maximizing conversion of biomass into a profitable mix of fuels and products. GLBRC’s research teams span multiple scientific domains to develop innovative solutions in three crosscutting research themes: (1) sustainable biomass production, (2) efficient biomass deconstruction and conversion, and (3) integration of these processes into industrial field-to-product pipelines.

Sustainable Cropping Systems. GLBRC is improving systems for growing dedicated energy crops on lands not currently used for agricultural purposes. Using nonagricultural land for nonfood crops, such as poplar, switchgrass, energy sorghum, and mixed perennial species, reserves arable U.S. farmland for food production, while simultaneously providing potential environmental benefits, such as climate change mitigation and increased biodiversity. The center’s goals are to maximize ecosystem performance and crop yield and quality under nutrient-limited or other stressful conditions found on nonagricultural lands. To achieve these goals, GLBRC research teams are:

  • Engineering plants with lignin and polysaccharides that can readily be turned into specialty fuels and products.
  • Identifying and developing plant and microbiome traits that improve energy crop productivity and tolerance to cold, drought, and nitrogen stress.
  • Investigating micro- and landscape-scale controls on soil carbon sequestration, nitrous oxide emissions, and nitrogen fixation in energy cropping systems.

Hydrolysate Fermenters.

Hydrolysate Fermenters. A hydrolysate experiment in process in GLBRC’s Experimental Fermentation Facility. [Courtesy GLBRC]

Efficient Biomass Conversion. GLBRC’s conversion efforts are focused on enabling a new generation of biorefineries that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable. The center’s research seeks to boost industry economics by finding new ways of processing biomass at low cost, producing fuels compatible with multiple engine types, and converting as much plant material as possible into products that are valuable to industry. To achieve these goals, GLBRC research teams are:

  • Improving methods for feedstock-agnostic biomass deconstruction and separation by the renewable solvent gamma-valerolactone and broad-specificity glycosyl hydrolase enzymes.
  • Identifying metabolic burdens and lignocellulosic hydrolysate stresses and how they pose barriers to efficient production of isobutanol (IBA) by industrially accepted microbes.
  • Generating the knowledge needed to design new industry-ready platform microbes capable of producing targeted products from conversion residues derived from specialty fuel production.

Field-to-Product Integration. The path from farm field to products consists of several interdependent phases, including crop production, biomass deconstruction, and conversion into targeted products that are of value to industry. GLBRC’s multidisciplinary research teams are building, modeling, and evaluating strategies for the next-generation lignocellulosic bioindustry to improve these individual steps while integrating them into an optimized field-to-product pipeline. To achieve these goals, GLBRC research teams are:

  • Creating novel and robust plant, landscape, and biorefinery models to predict the sustainability, lifecycle, and economic outcomes of alternative field-to-product pipelines.
  • Laying the groundwork to understand how the performance of conversion microbes is affected by seasonal or environmental changes in energy crops.
  • Developing capacities for improved microbial conversion of lignin into products.
  • Enabling the efficient production of terpenes by plants and microbes.

Research Integration. GLBRC is developing sustainable biofuels and bioproducts from all usable portions of dedicated energy crops grown on marginal, nonagricultural lands. [Courtesy GLBRC]

Industry Partnerships

GLBRC works closely with companies and licensing agents to anticipate industrial needs, move new technologies into the marketplace, and advance the overall economics of biorefining. Industry collaborations help the center focus its research on critical industry bottlenecks and more quickly develop new technologies for commercial use, while industry representatives on GLBRC’s scientific advisory board provide valuable perspective and guidance on research directions. GLBRC intellectual property (IP) is protected by and commercialized through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a nonprofit entity that manages and licenses UW–Madison IP, and MSU Technologies, MSU’s technology transfer and commercialization office. These two organizations provide companies with opportunities to acquire rights in GLBRC inventions and copyrights to drive commercialization and create new economic opportunities for biorefiners, farmers, and rural communities.

Education and Outreach

Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program.

Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Participants in GLBRC’s 2019 REU program at Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. [Courtesy GLBRC]

The mission of GLBRC’s outreach team is to inform various audiences—including the general public, undergraduate students, and educators—about bioenergy research, energy concerns, and sustainability issues affecting the planet. Engaging the community with fun, informative, hands-on activities and events, GLBRC’s outreach efforts are designed to pique curiosity and promote discussion. In addition, GLBRC trains future scientists and offers opportunities for undergraduate students to gain research experience on both the UW–Madison and MSU campuses through the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and iGEM team sponsorship.

GLBRC Partners

  • University of Wisconsin—Madison (lead institution)
  • Michigan State University (East Lansing)
  • Michigan Technological University (Houghton)
  • Texas A&M University (College Station)
  • University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)

GLBRC Contacts