News The EBI at 5: Director Chris Somerville Reflects

The EBI at 5: Chris Somerville Reflects

Five years ago, the Energy Biosciences Institute was inaugurated with a bold agenda that included an exploration of the ways that modern biology can be applied to energy problems, utilizing a multidisciplinary research model. The targets included next-generation biofuels and research that could remove roadblocks to making lignocellulosic biofuels, a major contributor to the nation’s energy future. Director Chris Somerville vowed to make it a bioenergy think tank, funding efforts to, among other things, find and develop the best feedstocks, improve enzymes needed to break them down, engineer better fermenting microbes, and critically evaluate the effects of a push to turn plants into fuel on the environment and the food supply.

Today, the EBI has acquired an international reputation and a spanking new home at UC Berkeley, peopled by researchers from many disciplines who are addressing many of these areas. Satellite research centers are thriving at Berkeley Lab and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a dedicated 320-acre farm.

At the halfway point in its 10-year, $350 million commitment to the academic partners from BP, Chris Somerville spoke with UC Berkeley science writer Bob Sanders and reflected on EBI’s past and potentially exciting future and the prospects for biofuels in today’s post-recession world.

 

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Q: What have been the most important contributions of the EBI in the last 5 years?

The EBI has become a leading center in biofuels in the world, and many of the faculty are leading people in the world in their field. We have a new building so that we’re finally able to get many of the EBI labs into a single very collaborative and interactive environment.

We have published almost 500 papers and made lots of discoveries. We have solved some major problems and have opened up completely new opportunities in the field of biofuels. One of these was the development of modified yeast strains that can simultaneously use 6-carbon and 5-carbon sugars -- yeast doesn’t do that normally. Because biomass is a mixture of 5- and 6-carbon sugars, it is really important to be able to simultaneously utilize those at the same rate so we wouldn’t have to run two processes. That came out of work on the fungus Neurospora by Louise Glass and Jamie Cate at Berkeley and from yeast engineering by Yong-Su Jin and Huimin Zhao at Illinois.

A lot of our papers are broadly based, because we have a multidisciplinary view. We have economists talking with chemical engineers, life cycle engineers talking with biologists and ecologists. We like to think that we are developing a literature that has a holistic view. We also have a lot of interactions with industry because we have a team of BP process engineers in the building. They participate in some of the discussions and help us understand the issues, bring us news from the industry, and facilitate interaction with industry so that we understand real-world problems.

Importantly, we have educated and graduated the first cadre of new students – by the end of this year, several hundred graduate students and post-docs -- who are going out and getting jobs in not only the biofuels industry but in industry and academia more broadly. EBI students and postdocs frequently come to my office as they are leaving for a new position to talk about how their view of research has been expanded by the interdisciplinary interactions within the EBI. I have found this aspect of the EBI mission to be the most satisfying.

Q: How does this fit with the original goals of the EBI?

I think that at the outset there was an impression that because we are industry-supported, we would be focused on the next incremental thing. That is just so far from where we are. We are mostly interested in game-changing innovation.

The Neurospora story, where we found a solution to the problem of using all the sugars, is an iconic example of this. It was an important problem where we made progress thanks to the collaboration of all three organizations -- Berkeley, BP and Illinois -- and where a whole new opportunity opened up for us. The discovery came from blue-sky work in which we were simply asking a very basic question: How does the fungus Neurospora grow on biomass?

In the course of addressing that very basic question, John Galazka, a student in the Cate lab, found the gene that allowed uptake of the disaccharide cellobiose, which is composed of two glucose molecules. A BP engineer, Xiaomin Yang, recognized it might allow industrial yeast that are used to produce ethanol to utilize glucose in the form of cellobiose and xylose. Within a few days of him coming up with the idea, we transferred the genes from Berkeley to Illinois, and colleagues there put it into the yeast, and sure enough the yeast would then use both C-6 and C-5 sugars simultaneously.

The next thing that happened was that the discovery of the co-utilization capability triggered a rethinking of the overall process.  Paul Willems, a BP engineer who serves as Associate Director of the EBI, has from the very outset been uncomfortable with the concept that biofuels are currently made as batch processes. In brief, in a batch process a big tank is filled with sugar solution, an organism is added and it ferments for a while and then you pump it all out. While you are emptying the tank and cleaning it up, it’s unused capital, which increases the costs of production. Also, a batch process only operates optimally for a brief period of time, because during the fermentation many things are changing (eg., sugars are being consumed, fuel is accumulating). Paul realized that the ability to utilize the two major sugars simultaneously removed one of the barriers to using a continuous process instead of a batch process.

Once we realized that we had solved one of the problems in going from a batch process toward a continuous process, the subject of a continuous process became a major priority, and we are really working now to solve other problems associated with a continuous process. In terms of our big goal of reducing the overall costs of biofuels below the cost of petroleum, if we can make it run continuously. I think it is likely we can beat the price of petroleum without subsidies.

Q: Give us an example of some other innovative work that has come out of the EBI.

Because ethanol cannot be used as a diesel substitute, we have an institute goal of finding ways to make diesel from lignocellulosic biomass. Chemical engineering professor Alex Bell, for example, is developing a series of chemical steps that convert sugars to diesel directly (i.e., without fermentation).  Alternatively, chemistry professor Dean Toste has found a catalyst and a system for condensing the products of Clostridium fermentation, called the ABE process, into diesel-like molecules. Chemical engineers Doug Clark and Harvey Blanch have devised an innovative method for separating the ABE products from the fermentation broth, and chemical engineer Nitash Balsara is working on membranes that allow us to separate the ABE products out of the fermentation without doing some sort of distillation. Thus, as with the sugar co-fermentation story, we have parallel work on different subjects that has converged.

Dean’s work, with Doug Clark and Harvey Blanch and collaborators, was just published in Nature. I think that their paper is a particularly nice example of a multidisciplinary approach because it brings together biology, chemistry, and chemical engineering to create a possible route to a goal that has not been achieved by a single discipline. And, of course, some very nice basic science was involved in getting to a possible solution.

Q: How did these come about?

When BP decided to locate the institute at Berkeley, it wasn’t because Berkeley was a leading center of biofuels research. In fact there were many other centers that got started long before Berkeley. But they chose Berkeley because it is a very distinguished school with a lot of excellent and enthusiastic people whom we believed we could recruit to tackle problems in the area of biofuels. Toste, Cate, Glass and Balsara are perfect examples – none of them had worked in any fields related to biofuels or fuels. EBI put in place some processes that helped educate them about the problems in the field, helped them identify topics where their skills and knowledge could be brought to bear on important problems, gave them access to funding and technical support that reduced the time and effort required to work in the field, and facilitated some productive collaborations.  Their successes in creating important breakthroughs in the field are very satisfying. I consider their accomplishments important examples of the power of encouraging and empowering really talented people to work on tough problems of societal relevance.  More generally, I think the EBI has become a useful model of how the intellectual resources of major research universities can be brought to bear on big problems of societal relevance.

Because we are focused on long-term goals rather than incremental improvements, nothing that we have discovered is yet in commercial use, though some things are in commercial development.

Q: Since the EBI was launched in 2007, how has the national outlook for biofuels changed?

Ethanol is well established and a big success worldwide in terms of volume of production. At about 22 billion gallons a year, it’s the largest bioproduct in the world. More generally, biomass-based energy, which includes biomass-to-power as well as biofuels, contributes about 35 times more energy than all solar in the U.S. One should not consider biofuels as some sort of fringe activity; it is the most rapidly growing component of the energy sector.

That said, in the United States ethanol means corn ethanol, and the demand for that is already saturated. Growth of the industry in the U.S. is now limited by our ability to either increase the proportion of the fleet that can use more than 10 percent ethanol, which is the current federal mandate. The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to do this by approving some cars for up to 15 percent ethanol. Increasing the number of E85 pumps would help, but less than 5 percent of the light duty vehicles in the U.S. are flex-fuel and can use E85. The auto industry needs to make every new car and light truck flex-fuel vehicles.

The other strategy is to actually make fuels that are not ethanol, but things much more like diesel and gasoline so they are compatible with current infrastructure and the vehicle fleet. So that is a major goal of the EBI, figuring out how to turn biomass into diesel and gasoline.

Q: One of your goals is to develop processes to convert more of the plant – the hard lignocellulose as well as the sugar – into fuel, such as ethanol: a process referred to as cellulosic. Yet BP recently decided not to open a cellulosic plant they had been developing in Florida. What does this say about the future of cellulosic?

My opinion is that because there is currently a lot of technical innovation still happening in this area, it is probably premature to build a biorefinery for production of lignocellulosic fuels. Academic work in the field has not yet converged to an optimal process. As I said, we think that such an optimized process will be continuous. When we get to a situation where academic studies have converged on the most efficient process and predict economic feasibility without subsidies, then it will be appropriate to start building biorefineries.  Some companies appear to have started building lignocellulosic fuel biorefineries because they have adequate confidence in their own technologies, they want to capture possible business advantages of being early movers, and (because of) pressure from the government to get on with it in order to preserve the subsidies that are currently available for advanced biofuels. I cannot evaluate the merit of these possible motivations.  However, based on technical progress in the field, I remain very optimistic that we will eventually have a very large industry based on lignocellulose feedstocks.

Q: What about the large portion of your research portfolio in economic, social and environmental impact.

About 20 percent of our research portfolio is in these fields.  One example of the kind of research we are supporting is a large long-term sustainability experiment we started at the very beginning of the EBI comparing prospective energy crops with conventional crops and with the native ecosystem of prairie grass on a 320-acre farm at the University of Illinois. Professors Evan DeLucia, Mark David, Carl Bernacchi and collaborators monitor all the gases emitted, including greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide; the mineral content of water runoff; soil carbon; and the plant and animal biodiversity. It is our largest single research expenditure. At the end of the 10 years we are going to have a unique dataset where we literally are going to be able to understand all the inputs and outputs at a practical scale, and know what the environmental consequences are of growing various prospective crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass. I really like that experiment because it is an area of research that is very hard to support with public funding, so it takes advantage of the long-term support for EBI from BP.  Also, in contrast to a lot of current academic work that is model-based and, therefore, very susceptible to errors based on which assumptions are used, we are obtaining real data.

Q: Has that had any impact on the balance of crops now used to create biofuels? It is still predominantly corn.

In the U.S. it is still almost entirely corn. However, we believe that most or all biofuels will eventually be made from perennial plants grown specifically for energy, and from various types of residual materials and waste. In the EBI, we are doing the work necessary before we plant very large amounts of a perennial crop like switchgrass. We of course have been looking for new crops. Our scientists interact with 30 botanical gardens which have been sending us candidate biomass species which we grow in plots on the farm and at 16 other locations around the U.S. That aspect of our work has directed our interest toward several native species that perform very well, prairie cordgrass and a nitrogen fixing tree, black locust. Both species are very widely distributed across the U.S. and are quite productive on marginal land. The prairie cordgrass is very salt-tolerant so we are testing it on land that has fallen out of agricultural production because of soil salinization. D.K Lee, one of our investigators at the University of Illinois, collected plants from all over the U.S. and has identified types that perform very well in different climatic zones and soil types. I think it will be a good choice for biomass production in many regions of the country.

We are also interested in the possibility of utilizing the large amounts of trees that were planted to produce pulp and paper but which may be available for other uses because of the decline of the industry in the U.S.

Q: Are there some myths about biofuels you would like to dispel?

Biofuels seem to have fallen out of favor in the past five years. The problem with that perception is that everything is lumped together as biofuel even though corn ethanol and sugarcane ethanol and lignocellulosic fuels are very different things. More than 99 percent of the public discourse about biofuels in the U.S. is about corn ethanol and doesn’t even reach anything the EBI works on. I think we need to get a more refined language for discussing this subject. When I talk about cellulosic fuels or lignocellulosic fuels instead of corn ethanol, environmental groups and organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists are very positive.

Another myth is that somehow the amount of land available is in short supply. That is so untrue. The fact is that we pay farmers not to farm more than 30 million acres in the U.S., not to mention the unused land that does not qualify for subsidies. There is a tremendous amount of land available.

We had a study inside the EBI which mirrored a study done by a group of ecologists at Stanford, in which it was estimated that around the world there are more than 1.3 billion acres of land that had been farmed and subsequently abandoned  -- more than half the landmass of the U.S. – that could be used to grow biofuel feedstocks. Those acres are particularly interesting in the context of biofuel production because the environmental costs of converting native land to agriculture (e.g., loss of biodiversity, carbon emissions) have already been paid during the original conversion. Additionally, I would estimate more than 3 billion semiarid acres that are not used for agriculture might be suitable for growing drought-tolerant native plants such as Agave americana that require much less water than the plants used for agriculture.

Q: What happens in 5 years, when the EBI funding runs out?

My personal belief is that EBI will continue beyond 2017, with funding from BP and/or someone else. I personally think we are doing something here that is an interesting and important model for a new way of doing things in the university. While a great university like Berkeley has knowledge in just about everything, sometimes, to address big societal problems, you have got to get lots of experts working together. What I think is unique about an institute like the EBI is that we have been empowered to bring lots of expertise in different topics together to work on a societal problem -- what can we do to the energy sector from the perspective of biology to advance some of our societal goals, such as low carbon energy and sustainability?

When we formed the EBI, Steve Chu talked about how things were done at Bell Labs, so we tried to emulate that model as far as possible in this context. One of the things about Bell that we have replicated is to reduce barriers to interaction between different disciplines. We have open hallways connecting all the labs, and there is lots of interaction. We put groups with different expertise beside each other in the same space. And we have a leadership group that brokers interactions between the different groups. Because the leadership team has an overview of all the research that is under way, whenever we see a connection between different aspects of research, we bring people together.

It is a privilege to lead such an organization. I really hope that we are setting a good example of how we can marshal a great university like Berkeley to address other societal problems.

There was concern at the outset that somehow EBI would be at cross-purposes with the university because of the reliance on industry support. But we are not. We are educating a unique cadre of students, we are creating and disseminating information in the field, and we are minimizing the delay between discovery and application to societal problems because of our close relationship with the sponsor. I think that is a really key thing, to actually be doing something about the climate and energy problems beyond just hand-wringing.


 

 


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