UC Berkeley News


Energy Biosciences Institute funds 49 first-year projects
Work will focus on cellulosic biofuels — their development, production, and impacts

| 08 May 2008

The Energy Biosciences Institute, the world’s largest public/private consortium dedicated to the application of biosciences to the energy sector, has announced an initial set of 49 research projects for funding during the first year of EBI’s 10-year program.

Projects are being supported at all three of the public-partner institutions: UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The international energy company BP is funding the decade of work with $500 million, about $20 million of which is supporting the first package of projects.

Research is being pursued in four categories related to exploring opportunities for the production of cellulosic biofuels — feedstock development, biomass depolymerization, biofuels production, and the socio-economic impacts of cellulosic-biofuel development. A second initiative, concerned with fossil-fuel bioprocessing, is expected to receive funding later this year.

By applying bioscience and biotechnology techniques to the energy industry, the Energy Biosciences Institute will seek to develop the methods and technologies that will enable the transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy economy to a balanced portfolio relying more upon renewables and cellulosic or algal biofuels with greatly reduced environmental impacts.

An initial thrust of EBI research will be the development of environmentally benign transportation fuels from non-food biomass (cellulosic biofuels). This involves identifying the most suitable species of plants for use as energy crops, and improving methods of breeding, propagation, harvesting, storage, and processing of biomass to next-generation fuels. A central objective is to ensure that this is done in a sustainable way without negative impacts on food production or the environment. In this respect, a notable feature of the EBI research portfolio is an emphasis on investigation of the environmental and socioeconomic aspects of cellulosic biofuels.

EBI director Chris Somerville, a Berkeley plant biochemist, says that the new institute represents a significant opportunity to explore solutions to the world’s most intractable and critical technology challenge.

“We’ve embarked on a commitment to develop new solutions to global energy needs through the deployment of new technologies based on advances in knowledge about biological processes,” he says. “The enormous progress in understanding basic biological processes achieved during the past several decades has not previously been brought to bear in the energy sector, so we believe that there may be fundamentally new opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of energy production and use.  

“In addition,” continues Somerville, “we believe that the multidisciplinary approach in EBI, bringing together biology, chemistry, engineering, and economics in the same building, will lead to completely new perspectives on how to approach these problems.” 

Programs and projects

From an initial list of more than 250 pre-proposals from researchers at the three institutions, EBI management employed a competitive peer-review system to narrow the field to 49 high-priority research efforts for funding.  Awards were divided into two categories: programs and projects.  Programs are typically large, integrated, multi-investigator efforts with a single major target, funded at anywhere from about $400,000 per year up to about $1 million per year, and may continue for the 10-year life of the institute.  Projects are smaller activities of two or three years’ duration that are either too speculative at this stage to be a program or are on a single, fixed task. These average about $150,000 per year. 

Program research is conducted mostly within EBI, so that the postdoctoral and graduate-student researchers from different disciplines will work side-by-side.  This will ensure synergy across fields and will provide a training environment and a broad appreciation of the scientific, technological, environmental, economic, and policy issues that must all be addressed to achieve the institute’s goal of environmentally sustainable bioenergy.

The initial programs and projects are in the following broad areas:

Feedstock development: Eight projects and programs are seeking to identify and breed plant species that can maximize cellulosic biomass production on a global scale and to learn how to grow and harvest them sustainably. A primary goal is to discover plants that can produce more biomass using minimal land, water and energy.

Biomass depolymerization: Fashioning fuel from plants requires the use of individual sugar molecules that make up most of a plant’s body. Biofuel production requires isolating these molecules by severing the chemical bond that holds them together, among the most critical and difficult steps in the process. Today’s practices are costly and inefficient. These 19 projects are determined to find a less costly but effective depolymerization method, a requirement for ensuring that biofuels can be reasonably priced.

Biofuels production: More productive ways of converting lignocellulose-derived sugars to fuels is the subject of these five projects. Methods used for biofuels today are similar to the fermentation practices used to make beer and wine, but they are not adequate for the large-scale production of cellulosic biofuels. EBI researchers seek ways to boost the concentration of fuel produced by the biofuel fermenting process. This could lead to a significant reduction in the cost of making biofuels.

Environmental, social, and economic dimensions: EBI will seek to understand the potential environmental, economic, and societal impacts of meeting a growing portion of the world’s energy needs through biofuels. This includes answering questions surrounding the amount of land globally available for biofuel production, the consequences of using land to grow biofuel crops, the effect of a biofuel industry on food crops, and the effects of production on the environment. The answers may assist policymakers as they attempt to regulate this transitioning industry. Seventeen projects have been funded to begin to find those answers.

For a complete list of projects and programs to be pursued during EBI’s first year, visit www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org and click on the relevant heading under “In the News.”