Berkeley Receives $500 Million Nod to Lead Alternative Fuel Research Program

In Feb. 1, executives from BP announced at a press conference held on the UC Berkeley campus that the London-based energy giant has pledged $500 million over the next 10 years for an alternative energy research facility to be built here in the Bay Area.

By Bill Picture
Published: March, 2007 

Researchers at the new Energy Biosciences Institute, a partnership between BP, UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will explore using biology to find viable alternatives to fossil fuels in an attempt to minimize ozone-depleting carbon emissions.

While the new facility wonít be completed until sometime in 2010, space is already being set aside at the UC Berkeley and University of Illinois campuses for temporary laboratories. And research is expected to get underway by yearís end.

This accelerated timetable, coupled with the Bay Areaís emergence as a green technology hub and the fact that Berkeleyís staff includes some of the alternative energy fieldís brightest minds, is what ultimately ended the winning teamís proposal at the top of a stack that also included submissions from the University of Cambridge in England and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Berkeley has more and better quality energy researchers than any other university, says Dan Kammen, a Berkeley physicist who will be leading one of the research groups at the institute. Collectively, I think thereís more going on in this field at Berkeley than anywhere else in the world.

While Kammen and his fellow researchers are excited about the opportunities made possible by this partnership with BP, they say that the terms of the agreement have been carefully worded to protect the interests of UC Berkeley and University of Illinois researchers.

Under the terms of the agreement, research conducted without the direct involvement of BP scientists, 50 of whom will be based at the facility, will be considered the intellectual property of the participating research team only. Research conducted in conjunction with BP scientists will be considered joint intellectual property.

Itís true academic freedom, Kammen explains. Thatís an important point because, typically, this type of agreement would skew in favor of BP. But this one doesnít. BP doesnít get right of first refusal. They donít get to pick and choose.

The final draft of the agreement is being drawn up now and should be signed within the next 90 days.

Biofuels, including ethanol, will constitute the lionís share of the research being done at the institute, though researchers are quick to point out that ethanol is just one of the possible alternatives to fossil fuel that they plan to investigate.

[Ethanol] is an important starting point, because thereís an infrastructure already in place for it, explains Stephen Long, Professor of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and the President and Interim Deputy Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, referring to existing technology used to convert corn, sugar cane and soybeans into ethanol.

But there are a number of other promising leads, he adds. And, now that we have the money, we can move forward with those as well.

We havenít picked a winner in advance, says Dan Kammen. We may find, in the course of our research, that liquid biofuels arenít the way to go at all. It might be better to use biofuels to make clean electricity to power plug-in hybrid cars. We donít know yet. And it doesnít do anyone any good for us to put all of our eggs in one basket.

The Ethanol Debate

Some members of the scientific community, including some of the institute researchersí peers at Berkeley, argue that spending even $1 of the $500 million from BP on biofuel research is a waste of money. Mention the word ethanol to this group, and youíre likely to get an earful.

Scientists on both sides of the biofuel debate agree that the technology currently being used to produce ethanol is grossly insufficient. Studies have shown that, when you factor into the ethanol equation the forests being cleared in Third World countries to grow soybeans for ethanol production, the fertilizers and pesticides being used to grow crops, the diesel used to harvest and transport crops, and the fossil fuels used in the distillation process, ethanol is as bad, if not worse, than gasoline.

But scientists at the Energy Biosciences Institute are confident that ethanol can be made cleanly, and that the end product can be as efficient and cleaner-burning than gasoline.

They also point out that ethanol isnít a fix-all for the pressing issues of global warming and oil reserves depletion. Rather, they see ethanol as part of a larger and more comprehensive plan.

But scientists on the other side of the argument insist that improving the technology is pointless, because the technology will never be good enough to meet the demands of the worldís fast-growing population.

At the level of consumption that we have today, biofuels, no matter what they are or how they are made, are totally irrelevant, says Tad Patzek, a chemical engineering professor at UC Berkeley.

According to Patzek, energy consumption, particularly in the United States, must be drastically reduced in order for biofuels to do any good.

We need to start using less, he explains. Thatís the bottom line. We have to make dramatic adjustments to our insanely wasteful lifestyles. Right now, we use 110 times more energy than is needed to live comfortably.

But the consumer doesnít want to hear that. They want to hear, ĎEthanol is the answer to all of your problems. Oh, of course youíll be able to continue driving your Chevy Tahoe on ethanol.í

Patzek proposes that the $500 million earmarked for biofuel research would be better spent creating and implementing a comprehensive energy-consumption-cutting program. The benefits of that program, he says, would be both substantial and immediate. But he admits that the program is likely to be very unpopular with consumers.

Start by taxing SUVs and any vehicle that gets less than 20 miles per gallon, he says. Get those things off the road. Next, develop a program for better insulating homes and businesses, maybe offer tax incentives. Find a way to grow cities inward instead of outward to create higher density populations.

Those first two things are pretty simple, but theyíre not very sexy. ĎInsulate your walls.í Thatís not very sexy, is it? But I guarantee you that its impact would be bigger than anything accomplished at the Energy Biosciences Institute.