Q&A: Chris Somerville reflects on EBI’s first five years

Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute and professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley.

Five years ago, the Energy Biosciences Institute(EBI) was inaugurated with a bold agenda that included a multidisciplinary exploration of ways to find clean, renewable energy sources and lessen the impact of fossil fuels on global warming. Applying modern biology to energy problems, the research targets included removing roadblocks to making next-generation biofuels a major contributor to the nation’s energy future.

Director Chris Somerville vowed to make the EBI 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 on the environment and the food supply of a push to turn plants into fuel.

Today, the EBI has acquired an international reputation and an impressive new home at UC Berkeley, peopled by researchers from many disciplines who are addressing many of these areas. Satellite research centers are thriving at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, partners with UC Berkeley and BP in the EBI.

At the halfway point in BP’s 10-year, $350 million commitment to these academic partners, Somerville talked with UC Berkeley Media Relations about  EBI’s past and future, and the prospects for biofuels in today’s post-recession world. Below are excerpts from the interview; click here to read Somerville’s more detailed responses.


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

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

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

A: The EBI has become a leading center in biofuels in the world, and many of our affiliated faculty are the 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 – we like to think that we are developing a literature that has a holistic view – and have made lots of discoveries. We have solved some major problems and have opened up completely new opportunities in the field of biofuels.

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. 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?

A: 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.

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

A: 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, 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?

A: When BP decided to locate the institute at UC 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 and Balsara are perfect examples – neither of them had worked in any fields related to biofuels or fuels. 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.

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

A: One myth is that somehow the amount of land available to grow plants that can be used for fuel 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. 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 five years, when the EBI funding runs out?

A: My personal belief is that EBI will continue beyond 2017, with funding from BP and/or someone else. 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.

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. That is a really key thing, to actually be doing something about the climate and energy problems beyond just hand-wringing. It is a privilege to lead such an organization. I really hope we are setting a good example of how we can marshal a great university like Berkeley to address other societal problems.