EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — While most talk these days about ethanol swirls around fuel credits and marketing needs, the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center has quietly celebrated its 15th anniversary.
And what a 15-year run it’s been.
“The difference is that as policies, technologies and products have evolved, the center has evolved beyond ethanol into bioproducts as a fuel, chemical, material. But the common denominator is that everything starts as a renewable agriculture feedstock. Because of this, we believe that our little four-acre spot truly is driving the bioeconomy forward,” said center Executive Director John Caupert.
He’s headed the research facility since 2009. While the project started with public funding from federal and state governments, the center has been self-sustaining and wholly funded by its own project contracts since 2009.
“We are a non-profit, but we try hard not to operate at zero because of equipment needs, unique equipment needs,” Caupert explained.
The center tends to maintain a $1 million to $1.4 million budget overlap between fiscal years and does not have a “rainy day fund” as many government and quasi-government entities do.
“We only exist for a time period which is determined by how successful our previous fiscal year was,” he added.
Certainly, the center’s work is rooted in research, but it’s also become a model for workforce development in a growing industry as well as supporter for corn use.
“Finding new homes for new bushels of corn is critically, critically important to our country as a whole. That’s really what we do here,” Caupert said.
Here’s a look at milestones in the center’s past 15 years:
1992: Idea of an ethanol research pilot plant is born.
1997: $14 million federal appropriation approved to create the plant.
1997: $7 million capital grant administered by Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
2001: Four-acre site selected in University Park on the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville campus.
2003: Doors of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center open.
2006: Center staff begin writing white papers on conversion of corn kernel fiber to ethanol.
2007: NCERC conducts first production of cellulosic ethanol with bench-scale fermentations of corn kernel fiber to ethanol.
2007: The center in collaboration with U.S. Grains Council, Illinois Corn Growers Association and Distillers Grains Technology Council develops a National Dried Distillers Grains library, one representing more than 70 percent of the dry grind ethanol industry.
2009: The center conducts pilot and demonstration scale proof of concept and validation on isobutanol, launching the NCERC into the advanced biofuels and biochemical market space.
2011: NCERC conducts first integration of isobutanol production with use of corn-to-ethanol infrastructure.
2013: NCERC begins extensive contractual research project that converts agricultural feedstocks into a bio-polymer.
2014: The center is awarded a $10 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, propelling NCERC into the workforce training and education initiative market space.
2015: A research study by the SIUE School of Business determines that every operating dry grind ethanol plant in the U.S. is using at least one product or technology that passed through NCERC on its commercialization pathway.
2017: Yan Zhang rejoins the NCERC staff as the director of research, re-establishing the center as the “go-to place” for dried distillers grains research.
2018: NCERC develops a corporate partnership with Shimadzu Analytical, which represents two-thirds of the U.S. ethanol industries’ scientific analytical equipment.