Bio-Based Chemicals Project


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Project Overview

icon-natureThe Bio-Based Chemicals Project fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture.


This project, led by D.K. Lee and Lisa Ainsworth, is part of a multi-institution effort titled “FMRG: Manufacturing ADvanced Electronics through Printing Using Bio-based and Locally Identified Chemicals (MADE-PUBLIC; view full project webpage here >>>).”

The University of Illinois team will work to increase extraction and production efficiency of plant-based compounds to make inks and their chemical precursors. Illinois researchers will grow and provide a range of feedstock materials with different cell wall compositions and test hydroponic conditions (from delivery of nutrients to environmental conditions) to maximize growth and cell wall composition of genetically engineered model species. 

Project News

U of I Crop Sciences Professor DK Lee, third from left, leads an Energy Farm Tour.

MADE-PUBLIC researchers convene at the I Hotel.

On Sept. 15, 2023, University of Illinois team members hosted the MADE-PUBLIC Annual Retreat at the I Hotel and Conference Center. The event featured project updates, roundtable discussions, a tour of the U of I Energy Farm, and a poster session. The National Science Foundation-funded project investigates plant-based compounds that can be used to 3D-print biodegradable electronic devices.

More than 30 team members from University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University, and Iowa State University joined Lisa Ainsworth, DK Lee, and the Illinois team for this annual meeting. The Energy Farm tour included fields of miscanthus, switchgrass, and corn.


Most electronics are not degradable, and their disposal contributes to a variety of environmental problems. To help address this electronic waste, a University of Illinois research team is investigating plant-based compounds that can be used to 3D print biodegradable electronic components.

The Bio-Based Chemicals Project is part of a multi-institutional effort called “Manufacturing ADvanced Electronics through Printing Using Bio-based and Locally Identified Chemicals (MADE-PUBLIC), funded by the National Science Foundation. The MADE-PUBLIC team hopes to demonstrate a manufacturing paradigm that converts plant biomass into bio-based inks that can be used to print green electronic devices and democratize manufacturing to allow individuals to print their own electronics. Kayla Vittore, a graduate student in Crop Sciences at Illinois, said researchers are using the lignin and cellulose content of plants to produce graphene and cellulose nanocrystals, which can be used to make the bio-based inks.

Read the full article about this project by iSEE Communications Specialist April Wendling >>>

During the past year the MADE-PUBLIC team reports the following.

    • The Illinois team of Lisa Ainsworth and D.K. Lee, along with Stuart Rowan of UChicago and Argonne National Lab, just started in on the project in January 2021. They will be working toward the efficient production of plant-based compounds for inks by optimizing the biofeedstock for compound extraction, and tuning cellulose and lignin extraction and conversion.
    • That team is partnering with the University of North Texas for Brachypodium grown and biochemical analysis, Ernst Seeds for plant seeds, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory for converting lignin to graphene.
    • The overall project has begun to develop an External Advisory Committee of scientists representing the five thrusts of the project as well as various stakeholder communities.

The Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) was instrumental in helping a University of Illinois team land a $1.4 million subaward for new National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research titled “FMRG: Manufacturing ADvanced Electronics through Printing Using Bio-based and Locally Identified Chemicals (MADE-PUBLIC)” and led by the University of Chicago.

The U of I team, led by PI D.K. Lee, a Professor of Crop Sciences, and Co-PI Lisa Ainsworth, a Research Molecular Biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Global Change and Photosynthesis Research in Urbana, Ill., will examine how best to extract and produce plant-based compounds from feedstocks to be used to make inks. The goal of their research is to optimize plant growth and biochemical composition for optimized isolation of cellulose nanomaterials and derivate products that can subsequently be used for production of printable inks. 

The total NSF award was for $6.15M, and NSF says the goal of the project is “to enable a manufacturing supply chain from precision agriculture/hydroponics to advanced biodegradable and recyclable electronics. The project will lead to major science advances in three domains: precision growth of plants; manufacturing of tailored bio-based inks; and sustainable production of printable electronics.

“As a convergent research program, the project will further lead to value-added transferrable and scalable scientific advancements, including novel artificial intelligence/machine learning algorithms for manufacturing, a framework for designing sustainable and systematically optimized manufacturing processes, and techniques for incorporating heterogeneous data into manufacturing data systems while automatically refining the models. Learned models will correlate plant phenotypes and growth conditions with cellulose and lignin extraction, connect ink formulation with desired ink properties, and associate printing parameters with electronic device performance and quality.”

View the University of Chicago news release >>>

A fuller description of the grant on the NSF website >>>

The Team

University of Illinois Principal Investigator (PI) and co-PI

  • Lisa Ainsworth (PI), Research Molecular Biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Global Change and Photosynthesis Research in Urbana, Ill.
    USDA ARS page >>>
  • D.K. Lee (Co-PI), Professor of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Departmental page >>>
    Lab page >>>

Illinois Operating Team (Postdocs, Technicians, Students)

  • Shuai Li, Postdoctoral Researcher, Ainsworth Lab
  • Eric Kinkelaar, Field Research Technician in Crop Sciences
  • Kayla Vittore, Graduate student in Crop Sciences

Partner Institution PIs, Co-PIs, and personnel

Publications & Presentations

(iSEE project members’ names in bold):

  • Coming soon!