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What is EBI?

12 April 2007

The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) is an unprecedented research partnership, led by the UC Berkeley, between a major energy company and three academic research institutions to develop alternatives to the world's dependence on fossil fuels and their alarming contributions to global warming.

EBI, which includes Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the global energy firm BP, will explore next-generation, carbon-neutral transportation fuels, with the specific goal of improving technologies for turning plants and plant materials (including corn, field waste, switchgrass, and algae) into clean transportation fuels. The partners will pool their expertise in biology, the physical sciences, engineering, and the environmental and social sciences to achieve these goals.

The research effort, the largest public-private partnership at any U.S. university, will be supported by $500 million over 10 years from BP, which has committed itself to funding "radical research" in bioscience to improve production of new and cleaner energy. The goal is to move the production of biofuels away from the inefficient and costly fermentation of corn to ethanol and toward more viable, sustainable, and environmentally sensitive cultivation of wild grasses and other plants to make biofuels.

UC Berkeley teamed with LBNL and the University of Illinois in September 2006 to compile a 90-page proposal listing basic-research projects in the area of biofuels that their researchers wanted to pursue. This proposal was submitted to BP in late November and, on Feb. 1, 2007, BP announced the award to the Berkeley team. The governors of California and Illinois joined BP executives in announcing that Berkeley had won the award in a competition with four other teams led by world-renowned research universities.

A contract is now being negotiated, with a signed deal expected by mid-summer 2007.

The research projects funded by BP will be conducted in approximately 25 separate laboratories. The four core scientific programs are these:

Feedstock development. This is research to increase the quantity and quality of plant and other materials processed into biofuel, and efforts to increase the efficiency with which these feedstocks are converted to fuel in processing plants.

Biomass depolymerization. This is the process of breaking down the woody parts of plants, collectively called lignocelluloses, into sugars for fermentation. EBI scientists will seek to genetically engineer enzymes or microbes to more efficiently convert these lignocelluloses to sugar.

Biofuels production. This will harness the tools of functional genomics, computational biology, genetic engineering, and synthetic biology to optimize microbes for conversion of tough plant materials directly into a range of alternative fuels such as ethanol, butanol, or hydrocarbons.

Fossil-fuel bioprocessing and carbon sequestration. This involves developing new biological processes to replace current techniques for improving oil recovery, processing fossil fuels, and sequestering carbon so that it does not reach the atmosphere.

A fifth, complementary program will focus on the social, environmental, and economic impacts of biofuels, so that, as society transitions to sustainable energy, new technological solutions are integrated into the nation's and world's energy infrastructure in a way that can be supported by transportation networks, the power grid, and urban infrastructures and does not disrupt agriculture, food supplies, or local economies.

EBI will educate a new generation of university students in all areas of bioenergy and also will serve as a model for large-scale collaborations between industry and academia. With a major energy company as a partner, EBI will be able to facilitate and accelerate the translation of basic-science and engineering research into improved products and processes for meeting the world's 21st-century energy needs.