UC Berkeley News


Birgeneau: 'This is going to be a phenomenal place.'
Chancellor sees the broad dimensions of energy research at Berkeley, and its promise of a transformational impact on society

08 February 2007

The day following the announcement of BP funding for the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) - led by Berkeley and with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as partners - Chancellor Birgeneau sat down with Public Affairs for a discussion about the implications of this research for Berkeley.

Why is Berkeley the place where this kind of initiative will take hold and eventually bear fruit?
First, it is because of the extraordinary talent we have here in science and engineering and the powerful combination of facilities and people we have on campus and at LBNL, in such areas as molecular biology, bioengineering, synthetic biology, and environmental policy. On the agricultural side, we have some outstanding work in the College of Natural Resources, and we found an ideal partner in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Among other things, they have thousands of acres on which they can grow experimental new plants - compared to the two acres we have down on Oxford Street.

Secondly, this is research that is just so well-suited to both us and Illinois, as public institutions with a commitment to research that will serve the public. Finally, the state of California and the Bay Area in particular have played leadership roles in environmental issues, so it is only common sense that we at Berkeley would want to lead in the really tough research that has to be done to solve this problem.

I think it is important to emphasize that there are not going to be any easy solutions. These are really challenging problems - if there were easy solutions, people would have implemented them already. Also, for our work to have an impact, it does have to be transitioned into the marketplace, so this is a case where a partnership with a major energy company like BP is of fundamental importance.

How did this winning collaboration come about?
Having served on an advisory committee to the director at LBNL, even before my arrival at Berkeley, I was aware that there were opportunities that could be more fully realized if the campus and the lab increased their interactions with each other. Of course, knowing [LBNL Director] Steve Chu and having a long friendship with him greatly facilitated this. Steve came to LBNL with a great passion for meaningful research on climate change and energy self-sufficiency.

At Berkeley, there were already many people, such as Dan Kammen, who were leaders in energy policy and research. Indeed, there was a high level of excitement because of the Helios project. Also, many people - including Steve Chu, Paul Ludden, and myself - had good relations with colleagues at Illinois.

Because of all of this, I believe that we were very well positioned to respond to the request for proposal from BP. The timing could not have been better for us. Our unprecedented success was truly a layering of events - of successful leadership and connections that resulted in an academic-national laboratory-industry partnership that has the potential to change our world.

How do you see deploying this funding?
It will be in various areas of research, and that will be the responsibility of the director and the board that is going to oversee the EBI. This will be a dynamic basic research effort, and we expect it to evolve over time.

A number of Berkeley faculty were already beginning to turn their research toward addressing energy issues when this opportunity for resources came along. It is not just biofuels - there are many other alternative energy approaches. For example, with LBNL we have a major proposal in to the Department of Energy under the rubric of the Helios project for support for other approaches to energy self-sufficiency. So we see tremendous symbiosis between the biofuels/synthetic biology approach in the EBI and other approaches. Our plan is that Helios, EBI, and many of these other efforts will all be in one building. So this is going to be a phenomenal place with a variety of important research addressing energy self-sufficiency.

Have the details been worked out on how the EBI will be governed?
We have agreed on a general framework, but we do not have a contract - we will be working in the coming weeks on that. There will be a shared governance structure. We are currently expecting a governing board of eight people, including a director who will be a Berkeley faculty member and an associate director who is a BP employee.

What impact will the EBI have on students?
This isn't just about research, it is also about education, and we cannot underestimate the EBI's long-term educational value. It will present really exciting opportunities for students to work with world leaders on important scientific, engineering, social science, and economic problems that will have a major impact on society. There is huge graduate-student demand to take part in research in this area, so having Berkeley play a leadership role has obvious benefits for them. In addition, I am certain that there will be many opportunities for undergraduates to participate, and that many courses will emerge as a result of the research this funding generates. Part of our goal is to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers who will lead these areas of energy research.

Do you have a sense of what direction this research will take, what breakthroughs might be already on the horizon and where the most fruitful possibilities are?
Of course, we are very hopeful that the major breakthrough for transportation fuels will come from EBI. But our energy challenges are so great. I recently spoke to a friend in Boston who mentioned that the cost of heating homes is phenomenal there because of the harsh winter, $500 dollars a month for an average family home. It's a lot of money. So who knows whether or not with LBNL's Molecular Foundry and the ability to use nanoscience to create completely new materials, we will develop solar cells that are significantly more efficient and easy to fabricate in bulk than existing cells. One really does not know where the breakthrough is going to come; there are so many different possibilities.

This is separate from the EBI, but frankly I agree with George Smoot that we need to see a resumption of nuclear power as a source of energy, because it does not contribute to global climate change. I think paranoia about nuclear waste is entirely misplaced and inappropriate. People in our nuclear engineering department can give you very compelling reasons why nuclear energy can help us address environmental issues. Enhanced research in nuclear engineering here and elsewhere can allow us to design reactors that are as safe as possible and to determine the optimal methods for handling nuclear waste. I think it is really time for the United States to readdress the nuclear power issue in a serious way.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (Peg Skorpinkski photo)
You've said that this is our generation's moon shot. In 10 year's time, what is our goal?
We will want to end up taking this research from the laboratory to the fuel pump. It is a scenario that takes us from finding the optimal plants for biofuels, to manufacturing the optimal microbes through synthetic biology techniques to convert those plants into sugars, and then developing and implementing chemical processes on a massive, commercial scale to take us from the sugars to an alcohol, something easier to handle than ethanol.

This has to be implemented on a phenomenal scale, so imagine the boon to agriculture - you could conceivably use up some significant part of the state of Illinois for these crops. But we have to end up with plants, grasses, poplar trees, and the like that use a minimal amount of nitrogen fertilizer - unlike corn, which is actually quite energy-intensive. Also, you would like a plant that is a perennial, that does not have to be replanted every year . Steve Long at Illinois works with a grass called Miscanthus that grows at incredible density, up to 14 feet tall, needs little or no fertilizer, and lasts 10 to 15 years.

Now I am a physicist, not a plant biologist or agriculture person, so I have no idea if that specific plant will end up being what is actually used.. Or suppose instead the optimal plant is a woody species such as a poplar tree, which grows incredibly rapidly - then the chemistry is more challenging, converting wood into sugars or a simple chemical compound that can be converted into alcohols. This is where the whimsical picture of an artificial termite comes in.

Do you expect that in the 10-year length of this contract we will see an impact on the market?
That would be very optimistic. But that is because of the scale of the challenge, and the landmass for plants that has to be handed over for this purpose. Then there are the chemical plants that would need to ramp up, and other aspects of development. If 10 years from now all of the steps are identified and in place, I think that will be a significant accomplishment.

This is an unusually close partnership with industry. What are the benefits and challenges?

Obviously, there will be challenges in keeping all of the intellectual property issues straight, and we are working those out now. But the benefit is that there are now incredible resources coming into a very important area of research, which students really want to pursue. We want to have an impact on society; students are idealistic, they want to do things that are relevant to the welfare of mankind. Here there is no ambiguity: one absolutely has to have an industrial partner to take us from the laboratory to the fuel pump. It is not going to happen any other way, and I think it will be extraordinarily educational for us to see firsthand how this transition actually takes place.

People sometimes worry that an industrial partnership would affect our choices in research and that we would start doing things that we would not want to do otherwise. It is actually very much the opposite. This is research that we very much want to do, but where it is a challenge to obtain the requisite funding. Because the ultimate goal is to have an impact on the marketplace, who knows better how to do this than a major energy company like BP?

So our faculty, LBNL, and Illinois will propose projects they are interested in pursuing, and the EBI governance board would fund those research areas.
It will work both ways. The governance board, including our faculty - remember, the director will be one of our faculty members - will say, "We feel with confidence that we need to do research in a particular area, and they will then either identify a faculty member who can do it now, or look to recruit a faculty member from elsewhere who is a world expert in the field.

And Berkeley is going to hire 10 or so new faculty as part of this effort?
Almost all of this will happen by natural turnover. I have had conversations with deans, who want to build up this area of research anyway, and intended to do so, whether BP came along or not. Their own plans looking forward are to hire faculty who are experts in areas related to this research effort.

So this is a blossoming area at the moment?
Sure, that's correct. It has grown as people started to think more about the energy crisis. There has been a lot of research already in this country and around the world.. I do not know if the war in Iraq has contributed to sensitivity on this issue, but there is a broad-based consensus that we need to find transportation fuels that are alternatives to those you pump out of the ground.

We have political, corporate, and academic will and purpose all coming together in this effort. Are there other pieces that need to coalesce for success?
Of course we will need continuing state support, and for research areas that are complimentary to synthetic biology, we need federal-government support, either coming directly to campus or indirectly through LBNL. There is also another component: one of the attractions for BP is that Berkeley is in the Bay Area, which is very entrepreneurial. Ultimately, then, no matter what the energy solution is, it will need industries that support it. The Bay Area is optimal for that - we have proven before and we will prove again that this is a great place for creating all kinds of new businesses to support these technologies. We are a center for biotech, nanotech, and..

Yes, I like it. You've coined a word.

Where do you see this effort going beyond the next decade?
This is a huge amount of money that BP is dedicating, but it is actually a start, not an end. We do have another $70 million coming in state support for infrastructure for Helios and EBI, and we hope for very significant funding from the Department of Energy for biofuels and for other alternative energy research. Of course, we plan for this effort to be a tremendous success, so although BP has made a commitment for 10 years, we are very hopeful that the partnership will continue beyond that. This is the scale that is going to be necessary to make a meaningful impact on these energy challenges. We are just really proud that it is going to happen here at Berkeley.

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