Sept. 2002 - April
'We're not the easiest date … in the sense that we’re going to poke and prod in not just the basic science but also in the systems and engineering and ethics and impacts and the whole management of biofuels. Because land issues, land tenure, land quality are critically important to sustainability, not just on an ecological basis but also in terms of people around the world, rich and poor.'
Dan Kammen: I was very pleased because our lab at Berkeley has been working for a number of years on biofuels and the Energy Resources Group has been looking at the energy balance of biofuels, the inputs, the fossil fuels issue, the whole equation of sustainability, from water and energy and a variety of things, and it was great to see this step take place where we actually are going to get the resources to work on all these issues.
Biofuels are complicated because they tie something that hasnít been linked before and thatís our energy system and our ag system, and each one of those is complicated and together itís more complicated. So youíre going to have to really get the time and the space and the resources to think through a lot of interconnected pieces. Berkeley has always been clearly the best university at being interdisciplinary; my department, The Energy Resources Group, was founded on that principle to bring people from campus and LBNL has done that, and Illinois has a number of very strong pods that are themselves interdisciplinary.
BP is an interesting funder, because when we wrote our papers on biofuel, it was actually the chief scientist at BP, Steve Koonin, who wrote the commentary, the editorial pieces in the front of ďScienceĒ about our papers on what really is the actual energy balance of biofuels. No surprise, not all biofuels are created equal. You can make very clean biofuels if you use cellulosic materials and then distill it in a plant thatís run by natural gas or wind, but you can also make fairly ugly biofuels. If you use corn, which is very fossil fuel intensive in some cases and then make that into ethanol in a plant that is run by coal, thatís uglier than gasoline, it turns out, on sustainability metric.
This project is really designed to explore that, and I think BP has had a lot of foresight in picking a partner where there was clearly a constellation of superstars on synthetic biology, chemical engineering, energy systems analysis, but also a place that was going to dig hard and look closely at what are the social implications. That, I think, is to their credit, and itís to our credit that we have this set of stars. That really was our starting ground.
The other piece of it though, was that BP was also very interested in something which I donít think was ever appreciated much by many people. That was, they wanted to see, and they kept saying over and over again, "We need to see an ecosystem of companies. Itís not just BP. We want to see lots of startups. We want to see the bioenergy space look more like the biotech space and the IT space, and itíll be a place where garage inventors and spin-offs are happening all over the place, of which no single university or company is going to control." And UC Berkeley, Illinois, LBNL and Silicon Valley really generate that space, which I think is unique, and so that really framed why I think we won and it just opens up doors in areas that we hadnít even thought of before.
Birgeneau: So one of the other special features of this which was implicit in what Dan had to say, but he didnít articulate it explicitly, is that besides energy and agriculture, of course, weíre now going to bring modern molecular biology to bear on this problem in joining together of those two important fields. BP people themselves commented that we have the whole biotech industry, but thatís largely been directed toward health as opposed to energy and thatís of course one of the things that we think will be very special about this research institute. I wonder if you want to comment on that.
Burnside: Oh, absolutely. Itís really seen as an opportunity to apply the kinds of things that have primarily been directed at medical problems and pharmaceutical problems to trying to address the bioenergy problem and itís made possible ó we have enormous capacity here in the joint genome expression center, which has the fastest capacity to do gene sequencing in the country. It has just sequenced the poplar genome and is actually dedicated to biocrops for energy, bioenergy crops. And we also have this enormous strength in synthetic biology, which is the process in which you can introduce genes into bugs, bacteria or yeast, to actually make them produce a product that you have in mind that they donít normally produce. So the opportunity exists to produce special products along the pathway that might really make breakthroughs in technology for how the pathway toward getting a fuel out the end from growing plants with sunlight on the front end will actually really happen.
Kammen:I think this is the right partnershipÖpublic university with the public trust in mind thinking about what are the not only the scientific developments, but what are the impacts of that, and thatís the right foundation to now figure out which fuels work well, and itís going to be different crops for farmers in Iowa or California than it will be in Nigeria or Nicaragua, and weíve really got to think through what are the constraints on water, on land ownership, on where those are going to come to market, and this is a place thatís got all interests at heart. I think itís the right constellation and time to do this.
Burnside: And the relationship with the partner in industry makes it possible to develop things that look promising and evaluate things that look promising in a way that we really donít have the capacity to do on a university campus.
Birgeneau: I think, in fact I commented on it in the press conference, I think that itís really quite interesting that a private corporation like BP, whose ultimate goal is obviously to please its stock holders by making a profit, picked a consortium of three public institutions, all three being committed to public service, but we at Berkeley ó and Iíll speak only as chancellor of Berkeley ó we indeed have a very deep commitment to public service and weíve ended up partnering with private industry in order to fulfill our public mission. Thatís our perspective. Why do you think BP came to the same conclusion?
Kammen:I think one aspect of it is weíre not the easiest date, but weíre not the easiest date in a good way, in the sense that weíre going to poke and prod in not just the basic science but also in the systems and engineering and ethics and impacts and the whole management of biofuels. Because land issues, land tenure, land quality are critically important to sustainability, not just on an ecological basis but also in terms of people around the world, rich and poor.
Climate change and the need for energy is going to hurt the poor first. Theyíre going to be much more vulnerable. They already pay more than the rich do on a percentage basis for energy. Weíre going to need to think through crops that benefit people and donít set up a conflict between food and fuel. Berkeley has the biggest collection of social scientists actively interested in the environment of any university in the world. Itís actually not even close when youíre trying to find a second one. This place is going to kick the tires on all interesting technologies, innovations, and some that look great in the lab this consortium is not going to bring forward because we are a public university. We are employees of the state, we have a public mission. In fact, I left a private university to come here because that was very important to me and this is really the right way to vet the things that come out of this operation.
Burnside: I might add that one of the reasons that BP has launched this program is that they really want to focus on interdisciplinary breakthroughs. They think that the new ideas that are really going to change the capabilities of the technologies are going to come at an interdisciplinary location, and Berkeley, because of its breadth and depth in so many fields, is a real asset for interdisciplinary research.
Birgeneau: So clearly this is going to have a huge salubrious impact on our faculty who are interested in these issues, Iíve heard from both of you, but what about our graduate students and the undergraduates? Are they going to get to participate in this and will there be new classes and new courses? How will this impact our student body?
Burnside: Absolutely. First of all, thereís going to be around 25-plus faculty on the Berkeley campus who are going to be involved in this project. I would say that a lot of the research money thatís going to be the direct costs of the research is going to go to funding graduate students. Itís going to be an enormous source of support for graduate students. Graduate students will then participate in seminars and symposia and various kinds of programs that are also directed at undergraduates. Weíre going to try to initiate new courses for undergraduates that will draw them into this and there will be internships for graduates and undergraduates. Thereís a large component of the program that is directed at attracting and training a new generation of scientists and engineers and social scientists interested in bioenergy in the future.
Birgeneau: So now weíve had the exciting part, writing a proposal, talking through in a preliminary way intellectual property agreements, and of course as you well know, and indeed I actually know that youíre working on this in full time, whatís next? How do we move forward?
'This is really an industry-sponsored research contract with the provisions that the research that’s done on the Berkeley campus, with Berkeley faculty, is going to belong to us, that’s ours. Any research that’s done, conducted purely by the BP personnel, will be theirs. And any research that involves participation where intellectual property arises out of the collaboration between the two will be jointly owned.'
Burnside: We donít have a contract. The proposal is what we put forward as a starting place for discussion, so now weíre sitting down to develop the contract of how this will actually work and how this will happen and so thatís now launched and weíre setting up the teams that will be working on that and itís going to be going forward then.
We hope to have an interim agreement so that we can get started on some things, but the formal launch of the program will be July 1.
Kammen:I think part of it that we worked pretty hard on in the proposal writing was that this really looks like previous agreements that the university had with industry. Itís a bigger version, itís not breaking new ground on any legal front that Iím aware of. It has very clear and very sensible divisions on intellectual property work done on the UC Berkeley side, the Illinois side. To me, the exciting piece though is that weíve got real strength in doing the plant biology, in doing the synthetic biology, and we are unique as a place thatís got the right mix of social science to really explore, not just as ambulance chasers, not just to look at this project after itís going on or kick the tires in the labs, but to allow what we want to come out of it to lead the process.
Birgeneau: Another aspect of this and this is a point Steve Chu, whom Iím going to talk to later, has made which I agree with completely is that, among other things, in partnering with a big energy corporation like BP one of the major advantages, from my point of view, is that they will, they have the skills that we will need to take our research from the laboratory, as I say, to the fuel pump. That in order to fulfill our social mission in this very important area we actually must partner with industry. Otherwise weíre not going to have the beneficial impact on society that we want to have and we are not going to end up fulfilling our mission.
So as you know there are many challenges in putting this together and one of them, especially since it involves partnership between a public university consortium and industry is issues of intellectual property, maybe you could talk a little about that?
Burnside: Okay, the strategy for this is a tried and true procedure that weíve used in other industry contracts. So this is really an industry-sponsored research contract with the provisions that the research thatís done on the Berkeley campus, with Berkeley faculty, is going to belong to us, thatís ours. Any research thatís done, conducted purely by the BP personnel, will be theirs. And any research that involves participation where intellectual property arises out of the collaboration between the two will be jointly owned. We have other examples of that kind of arrangement that weíve had in the past and theyíve worked well for us.
Birgeneau: So even though BP will be funding the research done by Berkeley faculty and students, nevertheless we will own the intellectual property. Is that right?
Burnside: UC Berkeley will own the intellectual property.
Birgeneau: Excellent. What about the idea that people will suddenly start doing things that they might otherwise not do just because the resources are available?
Burnside: Thatís sort of the way research works.
Kammen:I hope that happens. Weíve been under-funding energy research for decades and itís been underperforming as a result. So opening up those doors, I think, is the key, you know the key part of any such agreement; this one in particular. Itís nice to see the focus where weíve been lacking for a long time. What we really care about, in terms of greenhouse gases, is the carbon. And if itís a biofuel or a fossil fuel or something else, like a plug-in hybrid, all of those are going to be graded on their carbon. Not on some arbitrary standard like all biofuels are good, which theyíre not, and all fossil fuels are bad, which theyíre not.
This is a campus where weíll look at the whole picture and thereís basic research in all of those.
Burnside: I would add actually to my facetious answer a minute ago that, in reality the areas that we have proposed to do here were research that we were already wanting to do anyway. All 25 of these faculty have been very much wanting to do this kind of research. So the opportunity to compete with very outstanding other research universities to get this and then get the opportunity to use these resources for this kind of research is, just advances a program, which we were calling Helios, which we already had in place.
Birgeneau: One of the other interesting questions actually connected with the fact that, as we all know, many of our faculty were already working on these issues or wanting to work on these issues with resources limited. I hardly want to seem as if we are not grateful, but is this $500 million over 10 years enough? Can we produce the breakthroughs that we need to with that scale of funding?
Kammen:Thatís a tricky one. $500 million doesnít go as far as it used to. Not in a bad way but in a good way, because it takes about half a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market. Actually it takes about that much money to bring a new car, even a fairly unimaginative new car, the Mini, the PT Cruiser, about half a billion dollars to bring them up.
So, this is the right kick, itís the right direction itís an area where we think is ripe. Weíve been looking at this for a while but, itís hardly going to dominate the landscape. What that means is that we need to be as smart per dollar in this area, in other areas, I think weíve got the chance to really open up sustainable biofuels in a lot of areas in this. But itís hardly one that is going to swamp the system and itís one thatís gonna make linkages that would not have happened otherwise.
Berkeley working with Illinois is an excellent partnership and this private sector vetting of some of the things is something that we donít always get right away and the energy space has lacked bringing good ideas to market for some time. So this is a way to, you know, really tie a lot together.
Burnside: Another thing that BP brings up is that there is always a tendency with university research to optimize one part of the chain and if you just optimize one part of the chain you may sub-optimalize the entire chain. So what they want to do is look at the entire chain, from sunlight to fuel, and make sure that when thereís an integration across that whole pathway, that is really optimizing the whole pathway, not a particular issue and that just doesnít happen anywhere else. Thatís unique about this project.
Birgeneau: Thank you Beth and Dan. This has really been extremely enjoyable and Iím gonna, again, thank both of you for the incredible work you did to make this possible and weíre all excited to see what comes out of this.
Kammen:Thanks a lot.
Burnside: Thank you.
Narrator: Up next ó more on the science and significance of the Energy Biosciences Institute from the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steve Chu
Birgeneau: In the previous segment I talked to Beth Burnside and Dan Kammen about the new Energy Biosciences Institute, and Iím really interested to hear your opinion of the impact that this is likely to have both on and off the campus. What are we looking forward to?
Steve Chu: This is a great opportunity. Thereís been a lot of excitement thatís been growing over the last several years and now partnering with BP we will have the resources to actually carry out some of the things that we want to do in order to help save the world.
Birgeneau: And so how are we going to save the world?
Chu: Weíre going to save the world, in part, by doing something about the energy problem. This impacts national security, this impacts economic prosperity, and most important for me, this impacts stewardship of the environment. And in this creating alternative to transportation fuels ó alternatives for gasoline ó this will go a long way to helping this problem.
Birgeneau: Now for the institute itself, in the proposal and you yourself have been vocal about the fact that EBI should not be "just another research institute." What do you mean by thatÖwhat does that mean?
'Like many other concerned citizens maybe five or six years ago, I began to take these dire predictions of climate change more and more seriously…It’s irrelevant whether it’s a 50 percent chance that some of these predictions are true or an 80 percent chance. It’s like fire insurance, except the probability that your house will burn down might be 60 percent, so under those circumstances, everyone would insure their house against fire. It’s the same thing here.'
Chu: Well, this goes back to what you consider as academic research, where people do research, they train students, this is the core of a great research university. But the principle mission there is to train students, create knowledge and then you go on to the next thing. This is slightly different. Yes, you want to train students and create knowledge, but you also want to solve the problem and the problem is how do we get onto a much greener path towards energy. This is why itís so important to partner with industries at the beginning. If we donít do that, if we go along in the usual academic path, what happens is that you can get some scholars who go down there and theyíre aiming for the ďScienceĒ paper, the ďNatureĒ paper, and then after that itís someone elseís problem, and they may not know how to approach things that would scale properly in an industrial environment.
Birgeneau: Letís talk about the science for a little bit, which youíve obviously been thinking about deeply for several years now. Not the whole environmental scene but letís stay within the prevue of EBI. What scientific approaches do you think are most likely to be successful, and where should the initial investment in the science be?
Chu: Well, this is an opportunity to look at the way weíre doing it today, which is using sugars or starches, primarily sugarcane or corn, to take that sugar or starch, appeal to a 5,000-year-old technology, break down these slightly more complex sugars and simply ferment it as you would ferment beer. The trouble with that is that these sugars and starches arenít the highest yielding plants that we know about. Itís much better to grow grasses, essentially weeds, they can grow much more rapidly, far less water, far less soil erosion. For example, you compare a Miscanthus plant to corn and thereís one-hundredth of the soil erosion, one-eighth of the nitrogenÖ
Birgeneau: What is Miscanthus?
Chu: Miscanthus is a weed. Itís essentially a rapidly growing grass that is indigenous to the United States. I think it originally might have been from Asia, but itís been in the United States for 50, 80, 100 years or something of that nature, and it grows like a weed.
Birgeneau: So then the idea with this grassÖ
Chu: So the idea is this grass grows much, much faster than the other types of plants we grow for food and it requires much less water, much less fertilizer, these are all good things. This is an unproved crop, even with simple breeding we think we can make this much better. Then you take that grass, and the primary bottleneck right now is how do you convert this cellulosic material into ethanol or into some other biofuel? Right now, it costs, and the estimates vary, somewhere to two, two-and-a-half times more than turning a starch like corn into ethanol.
Birgeneau: I think it would be helpful for the viewers to spend a little bit of time on the public/private and why, in order to achieve our goals, partnering with a large energy company is really central to our strategy.
Chu: The exact details are currently being negotiated but the issue is, if BP wanted something where they would want to lock in all the intellectual property and own it all, they would not have partnered with a university. All the universities they asked have pretty strict guidelines on what should be open. For example, graduate students simply cannot work on any proprietary information that defeats the whole purpose of training graduate student and post-docs. So what I believe they see is thereís a lot of precursor research that benefits by being open. BP realizes it canít really solve all the problems that it faces, and so they want it to be open research, they want it to be in the midst of this open research that really is open to the entire world, and then later on as things develop there might be some proprietary things. But the core of it would have to be open, and I think thatís why they came and wanted to partner with the university.
Birgeneau: Letís also look at it from our perspective. Both Lawrence Berkeley Labís and UC Berkeleyís and implicitly the University of IllinoisÖone obvious benefit of this is that BP has the kind of resources that we really need to work on this problem properly.
Chu: Right. This goes back to what I said before about this is not just academic research, weíre trying to solve the problem. The problem is this energy problem. Weíve got to get greener forms of energy out there. We want to break the oil dependency we now find ourselves in. There are many, many reasons why this is a fundamentally good thing, but itís not only a fundamentally good thing, we donít have that much time. I think within the next one or two decades if we donít get a pathway to far less carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions, weíre going to be in serious trouble. So if you wanted to take the pathó
Birgeneau: "We" being Planet Earth.
Chu: We being Planet Earth and we being UC Berkeley and the Berkeley National Lab. Suppose we want to say we want to solve the problem and we want to give a concerted effort to solve the problem. If we did it the normal academic way, meaning you do your research, you publish in papers, you go onto the next thing, you hope someone picks it up, this is going to go too slowly. So at the get-go, you want to partner with private companies that can tell us no, this approach wonít go right, itís not going to scale right. We know about bio-refineries, a company might say, or we know about this, and so you want to get their very deep knowledge about industrial-strength processes in with the scientists doing some basic research, at the beginning.
Birgeneau: I think many people know this, but not all, that you yourself have been intensely devoted to the problem of development of clean and sustainable energy sources. Maybe you can talk a little bit about where this passion came from and what your ultimate goals are.
Chu: I think, like many other concerned citizens maybe five or six years ago, I began to take these dire predictions of climate change more and more seriously as I looked more and more into this. In those days, five or six years ago, there was a little bit of doubt, but as I looked into it more and more and began to read about it I said that even if thereís a 30 percent chance that I might be wrong or 40 percent Öas a matter of fact, itís irrelevant whether itís a 50 percent chance that some of these predictions are true or an 80 percent chance, it becomes prudent risk management to take some of this stuff very seriously. Itís like fire insurance, except the probability that your house will burn down might be 60 percent, so under those circumstances, everyone would insure their house against fire. Itís the same thing here.
Then when the opportunity to lead the laboratory came about, I began to think, Hereís a great institution in partnership with Berkeley, can really make a difference and what it required is you get the brilliant staff scientists and faculty members in these two institutions interested in the problem. Could they, or would they be willing to shift their career in order to attack this? Thatís beginning to happen. Theyíve now taken ownership of this. This is wonderful.
Birgeneau: One of the features of this is itís a very robust partnership between the laboratory and the campus and now the campus plus the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I think both of us would agree that both for this problem, and thereís other areas where we can see that taking advantage of the strengths of both institutions we can do things that really very few other national laboratories/university partnerships can do in the country.
Chu: I absolutely agree with that.
Birgeneau: Weíll have to see what our next great venture will be beyond this one, but I guess we have a little bit of work to do here first.
Chu: Yes, but the probability that we can deliver things is very high. I think thereís a lot of enthusiasm and thereís a lot of brilliant people. This is the beginning of the means in order to get it done.
Birgeneau: Iíve been meeting with students, especially undergraduate students but also graduate students, and I can say certainly here on campus thereís an extraordinary level of excitement about this. Many of our students, undergraduate and graduate, are going to want to figure out how can they get involved in this. So what do you think about the impact on our students?
Chu: I think itís wonderful. Iím getting deluged by emails personally. ďIíve heard you talkĒ they would write, or ďWhat can I do to help?Ē This is very exciting for a number of reasons. First, thereís a real sense of idealism ó what can I do to help? And the future always lies with our young people and our students, and so a lot of students are saying "I want to help." In fact, this is a draw to get them into science. Science really is, ultimately, for societal good. Of course itís basically intellectual curiosity but beyond that if applied correctly it can do a lot of societal good. So itís wonderful that these students are excited about this.
We have to get a mechanism to get them engaged. Right now thereís no real structure to say "Yes, come join us and start as undergraduates on the summer projects in a research course."
Birgeneau: Right, and weíll work on that. Interestingly and more broadly, whether itís global poverty or environment or other issues but issues that cut across traditional departmental lines. One of the things that weíre dealing with in real time on the Berkeley campus is how do we get this into the educational program and how do we get students engaged, and so I think this is probably going to play a lead in our attempts to reformulate how we do undergraduate and even graduate education here at Berkeley. So itís really a remarkable opportunity which will go well beyond a sustainable environment and may impact how we do education in public universities.
Chu: Yes, and what I really like about this is thereís a lot of idealism, and now youíre giving these students a reason why they want to learn these things. And if you think about global poverty, global health, and the energy problem, these are so intertwined. Without access to energy, you essentially donít have access to modern communications. You now can get wireless local webs that connect via satellite to the outer world, but without electricity you donít have access to that. With power or energy you can have access to clean water, you can have access to clean lighting, you can have access to all sorts of things. So these things are all very much intertwined with each other.
Birgeneau: Energy first, global poverty second ó and perhaps weíll have a list that goes on indefinitely.
Chu: I think they all come together, thatís the wonderful thing about it. You donít have to prioritize it.
Birgeneau: I think this is a way this program is well matched to a public institution, especially one like Berkeley which has had an historic commitment to public service and to social justice and we canít imagine a better avenue for idealism about those two than solving the energy problem.
Chu: Right. And on the flip side people get motivated by all sorts of things. If you did nothing about clean energy and the climate did change, there are predictions that for example, disease is borne by moisture and temperature. The prime example is malaria. There are predictions that the deaths from malaria could double or triple. There are predictions that as the glaciers deplete the slow, steady sources of water might go away and so in the rainy season you get floods and the dry seasons you have droughts. And so fixing this problem will have a profound impact on people all over the world, especially the poorer segments because they have no opportunity to move elsewhere, to use money to adapt.
Birgeneau: So our goal is to prevent ourselves from hitting the tipping point which would destabilize the entire Earth system as we now have it.
Chu: Well, there are changes that are going on now, and there are predicted changes that ó they range, but something along the lines of 0.8 degrees Centigrade already in the system. There are tipping points that we donít know about. These predictions are not robust, but one tipping point for example is thereís a tremendous amount of carbon in the frozen tundra in Canada, Alaska, the former Soviet Union. At some temperature, this stuff is going to be released, and so it jumps up very suddenly, and at that point youíve gone to a point where many people believe there will be harsh changes.
Birgeneau: So Steve, thank you, it was terrific and of course this is a really exciting time in the history of both the laboratory and the campus.
Chu: Thank you.
Narrator: Thanks for joining us for this special edition of Bear in Mind. For more information on the Energy Biosciences Institute and other news from the Berkeley campus, please visit newscenter.berkeley.edu