Creating Greener Chemicals With Biomass

The national focus on using biomass to substitute for some petroleum based products has given biochemist Basil Nikolau’s work new focus.

Since 2008 the Frances M. Craig Professor in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology has served as deputy director of the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) based at Iowa State University.

Nikolau works with director Brent Shanks in engineering to lead the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center of 10 academic and 30 industrial partners.

Premium research

The center concentrates on biologically producing chemicals similar to those currently produced from petroleum. Nikolau says that’s where the potential for growth lies. He uses the petroleum industry as an example.

“If you take a barrel of oil, about 75 percent of the barrel is burned for fuel and worldwide that’s worth about $400 billion. The 5 to 10 percent that ends up in chemicals is worth the same amount,” Nikolau says. Biofuels are a commodity product, worth the going rate at the pump.

The chemicals are produced at a premium price. “For fuels you need such a large amount of carbon, whereas chemicals you don’t need that much and yet it’s worth a lot more,” he says.

Being worth more provides more incentive for research. Developing new ways of producing chemicals from biomass also opens up more opportunities for obtaining intellectual property rights.

CBiRC’s researchers seek to find catalysts that promote the reactions to efficiently produce biorenewable chemicals. Another goal is to educate students to be creative engineers by exposing them to multidisciplinary research.

The spice of biology

Nikolau and his wife, Eve Wurtele, a professor in genetics, development and cell biology, joined Iowa State in 1988 during a period when many young faculty were hired to respond to the promise of biotechnology. He took a multi-disciplinary appointment in biochemistry and the food science and human nutrition departments.

“I’ve stayed more on the wet lab aspect of things and she’s taken on more computational aspects of research, but these are complementary approaches. The biological research with genomics has become more data generating, and managing that data and deducing valuable information out of that has become more important,” he says.

This is exemplified in the emerging science of metabolomics. The W.M. Keck

Metabolomics Research Laboratory uses analytical instruments to measure the biochemicals, or metabolites, that make up an organism. “It’s really geared to give biologists the analytical tools needed to measure metabolism. It could be any biological system, but we’ve focused more on plants. All our spices, fragrances and flavors come from plant sources. And these are pharmacologically active metabolites,” he says, giving examples such as aspirin and lovastatin drugs whose design principle originated from plant metabolites.

Metabolomics research should lead to improvement in foods and animal feeds with better nutrition and also aid in the development of biorenewable sources of industrial chemicals, Nikolau says. He calls it “the spice of biology.” Multitasking in multiple labs Nikolau’s many projects—he maintains three labs on campus—reflect his varied interests and the multidisciplinary nature of his work.

“Iowa State has a long history in plant genetics and I’ve dove-tailed into that by moving more into biochemistry,” he says.

The Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry says research was a challenge when he first started out, relating his specialty in lipid metabolism to nutritional concerns. First, fat isn’t considered good for people.

“Another difficulty to consider is that, you’re trying to alter peoples’ well-being by modifying what they are eating. So we were trying to alter one biological system—the plants that we eat—which is difficult enough to do, so when you eat them you become better. Altering one biological system—plants—in order to make a

second biological system—humans— better is difficult,” he says. His research is much more straightforward since becoming involved in biorenewable materials.

“CBiRC enabled me to put this larger umbrella over the research, a justification relative to a real nice application. Before it was a little bit eclectic in the form of

a justification or a rationale. Now CBiRC provides a rationale that is all encompassing,”Nikolau says.

CBiRC is in its fourth year of funding and has been renewed out to eight years, with an expectation to be funded to 10 years. By then the intent is to be self-supporting. The center is starting to make chemicals that several companies are interested in. Some of the industrial partners are sponsoring research.

Nuturing future scientists Nikolau’s teaching in biochemistry focuses on research-based education and training. Graduate students conduct the bulk of the research with opportunities for inclusion of undergraduate students, high school students and teachers.

In addition, Nikolau leads a grade school through high school program,

Symbi, funded by the National Science Foundation, which allows graduate

students to participate in classroom activities in Des Moines middle schools.

The graduate students become resident scientists in the classroom, providing them an opportunity to expose forefront research to young Iowans at an early stage of their education.