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UC Berkeley Press Release

DOE awards LBNL, UC Berkeley and partners $125 million for biofuels research

– Berkeley and the Bay Area cemented their position as the nation's center of alternative energy research with the announcement today (Tuesday, June 26) by the Department of Energy of a $125 million, five-year grant to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the University of California, Berkeley, and four other partners to develop better biofuels.

Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced in Washington, D.C., research grants totaling $375 million to establish three Bioenergy Research Centers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Madison, Wisconsin; and near Berkeley, California.

The California center, to be known as the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), involves six partners: LBNL, Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the UC campuses of Berkeley and Davis, and Stanford University.

"The selection of JBEI is a major vote of confidence in the Bay Area's growing leadership in the national effort to develop new and cleaner sources of renewable energy," said Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and JBEI's chief executive officer. Keasling also is director of LBNL's Physical Biosciences Division.

UC Berkeley, LBNL and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were selected earlier this year by oil company BP to receive $500 million over 10 years for an Energy Biosciences Institute to investigate future technologies for biofuels and ways of using the new tools of biology to enhance oil recovery and to sequester carbon. That research contract is due to be signed in July.

"This clearly will make the Bay Area the locus for development of a green tech industry to rival the high tech and biotech industries which started here," said Graham Fleming, a JBEI founder, deputy director at LBNL and Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley. "It is a tremendously exciting day for the Bay Area and the country as a whole."

Plans call for JBEI to be headquartered in a leased building in the East Bay, central to all partners. Initial work will take place at the West Berkeley Biocenter on Potter Street in Berkeley.

"The DOE bioenergy research centers will provide the transformational science needed for bioenergy breakthroughs to advance President Bush's goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012, and assist in reducing America's gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years," Secretary Bodman said. "The collaborations of academic, corporate, and national laboratory researchers represented by these centers are truly impressive and I am very encouraged by the potential they hold for advancing America's energy security."

Research will center on improvements to current technology for producing ethanol, in particular cellulosic technology for producing ethanol from biomass, and new technologies for producing other biofuels, according to Harvey Blanch, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and JBEI chief science and technology officer. Today's cellulosic ethanol industry is based on 20-year-old technology, he said, in part because federal research funding on biofuels ended when President Ronald Reagan jettisoned most alternative energy research in the 1980s.

In order to catch up, much basic research needs to be done to find out how plant cell walls - the hard lignocellulose that makes plants sturdy - are put together, so that scientists can find a way to take them apart and access the simple sugars they're made from. These sugars could then be fermented along with the simple starches in the plant to produce much more energy than currently possible.

"If (the cellulosic industry) is going to grow and compete economically, even with corn-based materials, a lot of improvements need to be made," Blanch said.

The basic research will benefit from collaborations with UC Davis scientists who have experience with the genetics of rice and a mustard, Arabidopsis thaliana, that is the lab rat or "fruit fly" of plant biology, according to Pam Ronald, chair of the Plant Genomics Program at UC Davis and director of JBEI's grass genetics group.

Blanch anticipates that JBEI could start making an impact on the cellulosic industry within a couple of years, particularly in the area of breaking down biomass into its constituent sugars. Instead of acid hydrolysis, blanch hopes that JBEI scientists can create better and more efficient enzymes to do that, or even an organism that both breaks down lignocellulose and ferments it into fuels such as ethanol, butanol or oil-like alkanes.

JBEI scientists will also develop the tools and infrastructure to accelerate future biofuel research and production efforts, and help transition new technologies into the commercial sector.

"JBEI will be organized like a biotech startup company, with very focused research objectives, and a structure to enable it to quickly pursue promising scientific and technological developments," said Keasling. "The organizational structure and culture is intended to ensure rapid commercialization of JBEI R&D."

"The ultimate goal of the energy centers is to get this into the market," emphasized Ray Orbach, director of the DOE's Office of Science.

The DOE JBEI organization will feature four interdependent science and technology divisions:

  • Feedstocks, aimed at improving plants that serve as the raw materials for ethanol and the next generation of biofuels.
  • Deconstruction, aimed at investigating the molecular mechanisms behind the breakdown of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars.
  • Fuels Synthesis, in which microbes that can efficiently convert sugar into biofuels will be engineered
  • Cross-cutting Technologies, which will be dedicated to the development and optimization of enabling technologies that support and integrate the DOE JBEI research.

Keasling draws a distinction between the very focused work of JBEI and the "think-tank" approach of the EBI. EBI's goal is to formulate a comprehensive understanding of biology in the context of energy science, exploring all possibilities in the field and identifying those approaches and technologies that look to be the most promising.

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