National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center provides research spaces for private companies to “refine and scale” their biofuels and offers job opportunities for students, now and in the future. They also educate people about the importance of creating bio-renewables in the biotechnology space.
The National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center has been a part of the SIUE campus since 2003. NCERC is a research center where private companies have the ability to test their biotechnology products in vastly different-sized fermentation tanks.
It is not only private companies that use the research center though. Farmer’s associations such as the Illinois Corn Grower Association often work with the staff at the research center to find uses for agricultural residues. Government labs, such as the Department of Energy, will also use the research facilities at NCERC. Hayes said her role in the company is to educate people about the importance of ethanol and what role it plays, as well as the politics surrounding it. Hayes also said the center is a place of education and work.
According to John Caupert, the executive director of NCERC, said that since 2014 nearly 350 students have worked at the research facility and 100 percent of those students have gone directly from the center to a full-time employer.
Caupert said SIUE students should consider working, interning, graduate assisting or doing a research fellow at the center.
“I firmly believe that every student obtaining a degree in a STEM field, regardless of discipline in those areas, if you’re an SIUE student, working on a degree in a STEM field, I think you should seize the opportunity of being a student worker, here at here at NCERC, or at the very least, coming over for a visit and tour,” Caupert said.
There are typically only two or three fellowship positions offered a year, and applications will be opening soon for upcoming positions at NCERC.
Senior biological science major Krystin Polhemus from Peoria, Illinois, has worked at NCERC since December 2020. She describes herself as a ‘collective assistant’.
“I do a bunch of different analytical tests. I work on a lot of projects, I’ll do something for this project. I’ll do another thing for this project. I bounce around a lot,” Polhemus said. “I’m doing something that will lead to my future.”
Hayes encouraged anyone to work at the center, not just STEM majors. They will often hire marketing majors or mass communication majors to assist with the administrative side. Hayes said that it is a good job for anyone interested in caring about the earth.
“This is a great place to work if you’re someone who cares about sustainability, greener living and climate change. The primary work that we do here is finding alternatives to fossil fuels by using renewable feedstocks,” Hayes said. ”The work that we do here is novel, it’s innovative. It’s super interesting. This is a great place to work because you’re contributing to that future.”
NCERC offers fermentation vessels from as small as 5 liters all the way to vessels that can hold 22,000 liters. Jackie Hayes, the director of business development and client relations, talked about the reason that companies would come to the center to work on their projects.
“Companies primarily come here to scale up their technologies … refine and scale, refine and scale-up,” Hayes said.
According to Hayes, when companies plan to take their biotechnology into the private sector, they use NCERC to run pilot demonstrations or demonstration scale work. The largest facility in the center is called the Pilot Plant which contains “Fermentation Alley”. The Alley earned its name from the fact that it holds the four largest fermentation tanks in the building. Each tank is able to hold 22,000 liters. Next to “Fermentation Alley” is the “Fermentation Suite”, where three smaller tanks, ranging from 30 liters to 1500 liters, are kept. In the “Fermentation Suite”, the center has a distributed control system, an automated system for both the Fermentation Suite and the Pilot Plant. The Pilot Plant is also a module system, which allows companies to plug in their own equipment when doing research.