Kevin Keener, a professor in food science and human nutrition, is director of ISU’s Center for Crops Utilization Research and BioCentury Research Farm. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Keener combines science with practice to bring increased value to bio-based economy

Rubber from Russian dandelions? Kevin Keener knows it’s possible. It’s just a matter of economics.

“It just depends on where you are in the world what the renewable resource is,” he said. “If something grows there, whether it’s dandelions or cactus, there’s technology innovation where we can take that plant and look at it as a raw material with compounds that can be pulled out of it.”

Keener is a professor in food science and human nutrition who serves as director of Iowa State University’s Center for Crops Utilization Research (CCUR) and BioCentury Research Farm (BCRF).

CCUR is a multidisciplinary research, development, and technology transfer program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The BCRF, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences facility managed by CCUR, is the first-in-the-nation integrated research and demonstration facility dedicated to biomass production and processing.

Keener said that unlimited opportunities exist in a bio-based economy.

“We have capabilities and technologies that are both part of my research and research around the university that are looking to take advantage of crops that are already being produced from a food standpoint,” he said. “Additionally, the material that is not food based — the stalks themselves, or parts of the cob — we have ways to take that and produce all kinds of plastics, and all kinds of purposeful products.”

Solving worldwide challenges

Like many faculty, Keener focuses on applied research in a laboratory setting. But he has a 35,000-square-foot laboratory in which to work, all housed in a pilot plant located in the Food Sciences Building at Iowa State.

“We have more than 250 pieces of unique equipment,” he said. “We can process materials in many different ways. Our pilot plant capabilities are globally unique in that we can build system solutions across the bio space.”

Whether it’s finding new uses for non-food products or exploring ways to increase food preservation, Keener said he is convinced that today’s technology is helping to solve worldwide challenges.

“We actually have adequate food,” he said. “The challenge is, we don’t have technological innovations or structures in place to preserve the food that we produce. However, Iowa State is evaluating technologies that can significantly reduce and potentially eliminate challenges to food production and preservation.”

Science with practice

As Keener searches for new solutions to economic challenges, he gives undergraduate students the ability to conduct applied research — work that is tied to a practical problem. He credits his own undergraduate research opportunities with this focus on student development.

“We support a number of undergraduate students in the lab to give them the opportunity for research,” he said. “We give them the opportunity to do independent research. The first step is getting them in the lab to give them a flavor of how research works.”

Keener said he believes this trifecta of talent — faculty, students, and equipment — puts Iowa State at the leading edge.

The CCUR and BCRF space and equipment is used by more than 50 faculty across Iowa State colleges and departments — including those within the College of Human Sciences. The faculty, along with Keener's staff, provide research, manufacturing, and process design assistance to more than 100 projects per year.

“It’s definitely an integrated process,” Keener said. “Faculty are the drivers. The equipment and the capabilities are one aspect, the other is the students.”

By giving students real-world experiences, Keener and his staff of 10 are preparing Iowa Staters for entering the job market and making it on their own.

“The long-term success of a company depends on its employees,” he said. “These students who have these practical, hands-on experiences in the laboratory or at the BioCentury Research Farm are highly sought after.”

Equipping companies for a bio-based economy

Keener said companies that partner with Iowa State are better equipped to meet today’s economic challenges. Approximately one-third of his team's projects are from Iowa-based companies. The remaining come from companies across the nation and world.

 “We are equipping companies with knowledge that allows them today to be competitive in a global environment,” he said. “That’s why they’re coming to us. That’s the exciting part of it.”

For the Ohio native who grew up around agriculture, a move toward a bio-based economy is also a move toward sustainable living.

“Part of sustainability is viewing things in a bio-based economy,” Keener said. “Sustainability means that you’re looking to take advantage of the value of everything that you have, not just the primary product that you’re producing.”