UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Ceremony announcing Berkeley to build EBI BP America chairman Robert Malone announces that the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute will be based at UC Berkeley. Flanking him at Thursday's ceremony are Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. (Steve McConnell photos)

BP selects UC Berkeley to lead $500 million energy research consortium with partners Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, University of Illinois

– Global energy firm BP announced today (Thursday, Feb. 1) that it has selected the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to lead an unprecedented $500 million research effort to develop new sources of energy and reduce the impact of energy consumption on the environment.

The funding will create the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which initially will focus its research on biotechnology to produce biofuels — that is, turning plants and plant materials, including corn, field waste, switchgrass and algae, into transportation fuels.

At a press conference this morning at UC Berkeley, Robert A. (Bob) Malone, chairman and president of BP America Inc., joined California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in making the announcement.

"We are delighted to welcome UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to this effort," Malone said. "We are joining with some of the world's best science and engineering talent to meet the world's demand for low-carbon energy. As part of that effort, we will be working to improve and expand the production of clean, renewable energy through the integrated development of better crops, better processing technologies and new biofuels."

"The proposal from UC Berkeley and its partners was selected in large part because these institutions have excellent track records of delivering 'Big Science' — large and complex developments predicated on both scientific breakthroughs and engineering applications that can be deployed in the real world," added BP Group Chief Executive John Browne. "This program will further both basic and applied biological research relevant to energy. In short, it will create the discipline of energy biosciences. The institute will be unique in both its scale and its partnership between BP, academia and others in the private sector."

The EBI also will be dedicated to long-term research into the production of alternative fuels, converting fossil fuels to energy with less environmental damage, maximizing oil extraction from existing wells in environmentally sensitive ways, and finding ways to store or sequester carbon so that it does not get into the atmosphere.

"We are extremely pleased that BP has chosen to partner with UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to create the Energy Biosciences Institute," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. "Combining our world-class expertise in the area of alternative energy research and policy with BP's ambitious vision for the EBI will harness the most creative science and innovative technologies to develop viable solutions to global energy challenges.

"With tremendous support from Gov. Schwarzenegger and the leadership of the California Legislature, we are enormously excited at the possibility this partnership holds for solving one of the most fundamental problems that currently faces our nation and the world."

Dynes flashed thumbs up to Malone and Birgeneau
Backstage before the announcement, UC President Robert Dynes (right) flashes 'thumbs up' to BP America chairman Robert Malone and Chancellor Birgeneau.

"This partnership with BP will develop new, sustainable energy technologies that can transform the landscape," said Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, director of LBNL — a U.S. Department of Energy-funded lab — and UC Berkeley professor of physics and of molecular and cell biology. "We believe EBI will create a culture where vibrant, interpersonal interactions will generate extraordinarily innovative energy research. The 'team science' approach introduced by E.O. Lawrence 75 years ago and the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs are striking examples of how large-scale, multidisciplinary problems were solved by establishing the proper scientific culture where the most brilliant minds can work together.

"Our new institute will combine the best qualities of individual genius in our faculty and staff with the capability to form teams that can rapidly explore bold approaches that are well beyond the reach of a single investigator or a single discipline."

BP announced in June 2006 its plan to invest $500 million over 10 years "to fund groundbreaking research aimed at probing the emerging secrets of bioscience and applying them to the production of new and cleaner energy, principally fuels for road transport." In October, it invited five universities, including UC Berkeley in partnership with LBNL, to submit plans for an institute to explore the fuels and energy sources of the future.

UC Berkeley invited the University of Illinois, known for its research on corn breeding and on growing, harvesting and storing crops, to participate in its proposal. The University of Illinois brings expertise in genetics, agronomy and sustainable agricultural practices. Field tests, harvesting techniques and the storage and handling of "feedstocks," or plants better suited to conversion to biofuels, in addition to other research, will take place on that campus.

Chu and Koonin chat
LBNL Director Steve Chu (left) and fellow physicist Steven Koonin, chief scientist for BP, compare notes at the ceremony.

"This exciting venture allows two of the country's greatest public universities to work together to develop renewable energy — an initiative that will play a critical role in the success and security of our nation," said University of Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman. "Addressing the problems facing society is the business of our institution. The scientists leading this important work are continuing Illinois' rich heritage of paradigm-changing discovery and innovation."

For its part, UC Berkeley was a pioneer in the development of genetic engineering and today is the leader in synthetic biology, the genetic manipulation of bacteria or yeast to turn them into microbial factories. It also has been a leader in applying biotechnology to the development of new drugs and the engineering of plants. The campus's top-ranked departments of plant and microbial biology, molecular and cell biology, chemistry and chemical engineering, and its College of Engineering — complemented by LBNL's state-of-the-art research tools, such as the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source — provide a unique foundation for tackling the problem of converting biomass into fuel. UC Berkeley's office of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3), a California Institute for Science and Innovation mandated by the state to partner with industry to generate new technologies, coordinated the research proposal.

LBNL and UC Berkeley also have been leaders for decades in research on energy, including battery technology, combustion, the design of energy-efficient buildings, energy policy, advanced transit, renewable energy and nuclear power. LBNL has created novel technologies that have helped decrease energy use for the entire nation.

UC Berkeley also is home to a critical mass of social scientists interested in the societal, business, legal and ethical implications of switching from fossil fuel to clean, sustainable fuel, as well as scientists studying the impact of global warming. High-tech fields, such as nanotechnology, at UC Berkeley and LBNL, also have led to innovative energy solutions, including flexible and inexpensive solar panels.

"The goal is to understand the scientific, technical and social issues associated with developing a biofuels industry, and then to draw on the genius of the academic community to try and create some improved technical approaches to the various components to making biofuels," said Steve Koonin, BP's chief scientist.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and Birgeneau
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's remarks in support of the Energy Biosciences Institute draw a smile from Chancellor Birgeneau.

"In launching this visionary institute, BP is creating a new model for university-industry collaboration," said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside, professor of molecular and cell biology. "This will stimulate innovation in a way that promises to deliver the maximum impact on fundamental, real-world problems."

The institute, with about 25 faculty-level principal investigators housed at UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois, will concentrate on three aspects of the biomass-to-biofuel equation: developing feedstocks; creating techniques for breaking down plant material to its sugar building blocks; and finding ways of fermenting the sugars into ethanol. These "cellulosic" techniques could lead to process improvements for existing ethanol plants. Eventually, the institute expects to focus on biotech production of other fuels, such as butanol and hydrocarbon fuels that are closer to the gasoline we burn today.

Graham Fleming, deputy director of LBNL and UC Berkeley professor of chemistry, emphasized that the institute "is not going to have any vested interest in a particular outcome. We are going to try to draw on the best science and information to come up with an unbiased analysis of where the opportunities are, what the problems are, and then what the solutions to those problems are. I see this institute as integrating all the disciplines, including social sciences and economics, to really make sure that we have seen the whole picture and understand and can balance the various approaches on a rational basis."

Researchers from the partner institutions and BP scientists will work together at UC Berkeley and at the University of Illinois, while BP and its partners will share governance of the EBI and guidance of its research programs.

"As an early leader in the field, we hope to be the intellectual center for the science and technology of biofuels production," Fleming said.

The BP grant dovetails with new energy initiatives at LBNL and UC Berkeley that include the Helios Project and a proposed bioenergy research center, which is in the running for U.S. Department of Energy grants that nationwide would total $250 million. Both projects are devoted to developing sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy, such as biomass conversion, which is inherently carbon-neutral.

In support of these energy initiatives, and in anticipation of the BP grant coming to the University of California, Gov. Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez proposed last December that if BP awarded half a billion dollars to UC, the state would add $40 million more. The funds would be combined with a promised $30 million from the state to help both the lab and UC Berkeley build a research building to house Helios and the EBI, tentatively planned on the border between LBNL and the campus. State Sen. Don Perata is a strong supporter of this plan.

"It takes more than scientific innovation to create environmentally friendly solutions to the energy problem," Chu said. "Gov. Schwarzenegger, President Pro Tem Perata, Speaker Nuñez, and the state Legislature have made California the leader in energy policy and energy conservation in the U.S., and now, with their support, California will lead in energy research on clean sustainable alternative energy sources."