Researchers from the University of Iowa (UI) will play a key role in boosting Iowa’s position as a leader in bioscience and advanced manufacturing through a new project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Written by: Leslie Revaux

A new $20 million, multi-institutional project brings together expertise from all three Iowa’s regent universities, Central College, and Dordt University. Together, the colleges and universities will build research capacity, secure infrastructure, and train a skilled advanced biomanufacturing workforce.

“Faculty at the University of Iowa are looking forward to working together collaboratively with faculty at Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, and other Iowa-based institutions to move towards achieving our collective vision,” said Ali Salem, Lyle and Sharon Bighley Endowed Chair and professor in pharmaceutical sciences, associate vice president for research. Salem serves as the UI’s principal investigator on the grant, informally titled Chemurgy 2.0.

George Washington Carver – Iowa State University’s first African American student and faculty member – coined the term Chemurgy to describe the use of applied chemistry to produce industrial products from agricultural materials.

“Given our rich history and strength in agriculture, the state of Iowa is well-prepared to lead our nation in the area of advanced biomanufacturing, with this award serving as a catalyst,” said Kristan Worthington, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, University of Iowa College of Engineering.

Chemurgy logo for EPSCoR project

Researchers will build on the state’s reputation as a hub for the biosciences, with a goal of accelerating the commercialization of bio-derived products with societal and health benefits. This includes plastics for additive manufacturing, fibers for flexible and rigid materials, and proteins for diagnostics and therapeutics.

“It is critical that the United States maintains leadership in the area of sustainable manufacturing,” said Florence Williams, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  “Not only does sustainable manufacturing benefit society by relying less on petroleum and generating biodegradable waste streams, but there is also rapidly increasing economic demand for sustainably sourced consumer goods.” 

As a part of the workforce development initiatives associated with the project, students from rural Iowa communities will join the project through a Rural Scholars program to prepare them for future career paths in biotechnology.

“Rural Iowans are often directly involved, or adjacent to, our agricultural economy. Integrating them in the research efforts of this project to study biomaterials, and eventually advance them as products, will be an excellent opportunity for cooperation and education of both groups,” said Scott Shaw, associate professor, Department of Chemistry.

The grant leverages the deep and broad expertise of faculty from a range of University of Iowa colleges and units, including the College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Education, College of Pharmacy, Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing, Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on Photopolymerization, Iowa MADE, Protostudios, and University of Iowa Pharmaceuticals

The NSF awarded funding for the project as a part of its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The program is designed to expand the geography of scientific progress across the nation

University of Iowa research contributions

Sixteen University of Iowa faculty will contribute to the project. Seven of their projects are featured below.

Allan Guymon

Allan Guymon

Professor, Chemical and Biochemical Engineering

Our research will use bio-inspired molecule feedstocks for a new generation of plastic materials for additive manufacturing. We will develop a new family of bio-based monomer building blocks to enhance mechanical strength/toughness and production speed in photo-based 3D printing applications.

Researchers in the College of Engineering at Iowa will work closely with researchers across campus and across the state. Our team will utilize and incorporate Iowa’s unique capabilities and strengths in bioscience, materials, and manufacturing to develop next generation 3D constructs to support and build expertise and leadership in advanced biomanufacturing.

Kristan Worthington

Kristan Worthington

Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering

Our team will work with scientists and engineers across the state to develop light-based 3D-printing resins with components that are produced by engineered biological systems, such as genetically modified plants and bacteria. Our goal is to overcome key challenges in the adoption of light-based 3D-printing by increasing sustainability, enhancing mechanical properties, and enabling faster printing.

The use of light-based 3D-printing to manufacture complex products and prototypes is expanding across industry sectors ranging from biotechnology to aerospace engineering. However, light-based 3D-printing currently relies heavily on fossil fuel derivatives and other additives that may not be safe for humans or the environment. Developing biologically produced 3D-printing resins would greatly enhance the sustainability and safety of light-based 3D-printing while also potentially improving the quality and speed of part production.

Reza Nejadnik

Reza Nejadnik

Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences & Experimental Therapeutics

Proteins represent a strong and growing sector of healthcare and food industries among others. Protein products include biopharmaceuticals (biological drugs and vaccines), animal healthcare, human nutrition and wellness, alternative foods, and enzymes for commodity products. These products have revolutionized many of the approaches in the industry. By way of an example, protein therapeutics have contributed to human health in several areas of unmet needs and benefited patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and many other diseases, often with significantly improved outcomes compared to the previous generations of therapeutics.

Increasing efficiency of protein product development and manufacturing is a cornerstone of competitiveness for us in the great state of Iowa.

Florence Williams

Florence Williams

Assistant Professor, Chemistry

The type of cellulose we aim to generate has unique properties, such as being stronger than Kevlar but light in weight and translucent, which will facilitate the creation of next-generation materials that can have far-reaching impacts in high tech fields (military, space travel, etc).  

By combining Iowa’s strengths of state-of-the-art science at research-intensive institutions like University of Iowa, with the knowledge and production capabilities in farming, Iowa is primed to be a leader in these technological advancements.  This NSF support will strengthen collaborative efforts and facilitate the rapid advancement of technology from the lab to agricultural fields and processing plants to high performance products.

Ned Bowden

Ned Bowden

Professor, Chemistry

The Bowden research group will be responsible for the development of the next generation of membranes to rapidly and inexpensively purify the chemicals that are produced by collaborators.  Membranes are an inexpensive method to purify chemicals on an industrial level, but current membranes will be unable to purify the chemicals produced in this research effort.  We will fabricate new sets of membranes to understand how their structures relate to their separations so that we can separate chemicals to purities that are required for industrial applications to enable the large-scale production and application of these chemicals within Iowa.

Mark Arnold

Mark Arnold

Edwin B. Green Professor in Laser Chemistry

The EPSCoR grant’s focus on biomanufacturing places the Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing (CBB) at the center of its research, STEM education, and economic development missions. This EPSCoR program grant takes advantage of the Center’s expertise in pilot-scale biomanufacturing as well as its involvement in preparing students for lifelong careers in biotechnology. Funds from this grant will double the CBB’s pilot-scale biomanufacturing capacity while also expanding its menu of both cell-hosts and product types, as defined in the three pillars of the grants research focus of 1) Plastics for Additive Manufacturing, 2) Fibers for Flexible and Rigid Materials, and 3) Proteins for Diagnostics and Therapeutics.

A key objective of this program is to shorten the time-to-market for basic laboratory discoveries by using scale-up protocols established within the CBB and other bioprocessing facilities operating within other program institutions.  

Scott Shaw

Scott Shaw

Associate Professor, Chemistry

My research group’s interest in this project is mainly in its promise to deliver new, bio-renewable materials. This is important because it will contribute to our shift away from conventional, petroleum materials. My group’s specific task is with characterizing the materials for their strength and durability. We will also explore how we might tune the properties of the materials for a range of applications. We hope the biomaterials produced in this work will be used similarly to how we currently use cotton or polyester or nylon for different purposes.  Iowa agriculture produces a large amount of bio-mass, so the state is a particularly good place to explore these materials for alternative uses, which would lead to additional market demand.