Auburn awarded $4.6 million NSF grant to renovate biological engineering laboratories

AUBURN – The National Science Foundation has awarded Auburn University a $4.6 million grant to renovate research laboratories that will enhance the university’s biological engineering programs.

Auburn’s Department of Biosystems Engineering will use the funding to upgrade the Tom Corley Building Annex, which was constructed in 1948. The renovated 23,000-square-foot facility will allow Auburn to increase its research into bioenergy and bioproducts engineering, ecological engineering, food safety engineering, biosystems automation and best management technologies.

The grant is funded through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. An additional $1.4 million is being provided by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, bringing the total renovation cost to $6 million. Completion is expected in late 2012.

“Our nation is facing serious challenges in providing renewable energy, safe and healthy food and a clean environment. I believe Auburn is at the forefront of answering those challenges,” Auburn President Jay Gogue said. “The annex was very appropriate when built and it has allowed faculty to make advances for decades, but now it is outdated for the type of contemporary biological engineering research needed. This grant will give our faculty and students much greater ability to make new discoveries and address global issues.”

Auburn scientists and graduate students will use the laboratories to expand their research into complex problems where engineering and biology intersect. This includes finding bioenergy sources, improving production and refining, and developing new biobased products for consumers.

Steve Taylor, head of the Department of Biosystems Engineering and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts, said the new funding will complement a $4.9 million U.S. Department of Energy grant obtained in 2009, which is being used to develop new production systems for harvesting pine biomass for biofuel.

“The renovated labs will give us much-needed research space for this project and other interdisciplinary efforts from across campus,” Taylor said. “We have collaborators from the College of Agriculture, the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and other colleges and departments.”

While the new NSF grant will go toward only the renovation, Auburn faculty have been obtaining grants to acquire highly advanced equipment that will be housed in the labs. Equipment such as atomic force microscopy, gas chromatography and multiple types of infrared and near infrared spectroscopy has already been attained.

“Current physical spaces to house these systems are inadequate, so many of the functions are being conducted in leased, off-site locations,” said John Mason, Auburn’s associate provost and vice president for research. “The renovated labs will allow us to bring state-of-the-art programs into a modern, onsite facility.”

Examples of Auburn’s research include developing techniques for processing biomass for production of liquid fuels or electrical power; converting biomass into intermediate products suitable for further biorefining; studying emerging contaminants in the environment; quantifying the impact of climate variability on water resources; developing food processing and packaging techniques to extend shelf life; refining food traceability systems; developing sensors to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides; and developing data collection to ensure long-term sustainability of agricultural and forest lands.

The labs also will allow Auburn to expand its new graduate degree programs in the Department of Biosystems Engineering. “Our master’s and doctoral programs began this fall and we already have 17 students, including international students,” Taylor said. “We should be able to accept more graduate students now and be able to recruit the very top ones.”

William Batchelor, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, added, “This grant is a major boost to our research efforts in bioenergy, food safety and the environment. To be recognized nationally by agencies such as the National Science Foundation attests to the ability and dedication of our faculty, staff and students. We will continue to build upon this success.”

(Written by Charles Martin.)

Contact: Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu), or
Charles Martin, (334) 844-9999 (marticd@auburn.edu)