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Responsibly creating new plant biofuels

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Scientists at U.C. Berkeley remain hopeful we can farm our way out of foreign oil dependency. A critical part of their research is analyzing the social and economic ramifications of anything they create.

Inside the Energy Biosciences Institute at U.C. Berkeley, scientists are working towards tomorrow's alternative to gasoline. However, instead of pumping fossil fuels out of the Earth, they hope to grow a solution.

"The precedence is ethanol, although in the future we think we are going to be able to make fuels that look more like deisel and gasoline," says Dr. Chris Somerville Ph.D., director of the Energy Bioscience Institute.

Dr. Somerville heads up the institude and is in charge of roughly a hundred scientists with a common goal.

"We really have got to decarbonize the energy supply immediately. There is no single solution to that," says Dr. Somerville.

The institute is trying to identify and improve plants that can be used to make fuel. Their goal is to make it efficiently, with less waste, and have the least impact on climate change. Researchers already know it can be done using cellulosic biomass.

"If you think of a corn plant, there are two distinguishable parts. There's the seeds of the plant, then there are the stocks and the cobs. All of it is made from a primrose sugar that's called cellulose," says Dr. Somerville. "So to make fuel, what we do to make fuel is de-polymerize it -- that is break the polymers down into single sugars and then convert the sugars to fuel. We could do it today, if we were really pressed, we could probably make fuels for below $4 a gallon gasoline equivalent."

However, researchers don't just want to make biofuel, they want to make the best biofuel possible.

"The one that one that's most widely known is Switchgrass," says Dr. Somerville.

In conjunction with the University of Illinois, the institute is growing Switchgrass for testing as a fuel, but they have higher hopes for bigger yields from another plant.

"We're probably more interested a species called Miscanthus. It's a relative of sugarcane, but unlike sugarcane which will only grow in tropical regions, Miscanthus will grow, gosh, all the way up to Sweden, and Europe, and Canada," says Dr. Somerville.

Miscanthus-based fuel could go for as little as $3 a gallon.

"With Miscanthus we can get about 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre," says Dr. Somerville.

However, getting fuel from the farm to your local gas station isn't as easy as it sounds. The Energy Bioscience Institute estimates that it will cost upwards of $200 billion to build the facilities to make biofuels. With the industry in its infancy, no fuel manufacturer is willing to invest that heavily in new technology until the process becomes standardized.

And then there are the social and economic issues that come with growing a new fuel and we don't have to look any further than the issues that come with today's corn based ethanol.

The amount grain it takes to fill a SUV, could feed a person for a year. Because they can make more money, farmers are switching from growing corn for food, to growing corn for fuel.

It's a move that's lead to higher food prices around the world and threatens some people with starvation. The United Nations' World Food Program calls the rising cost of food a global emergency.

That's why EBI has researchers working on all aspects of tomorrow's fuel.

"How can we do it in a way that will allow us to use natural resources in a reasonable way? Increase the income of our farmers, increase the productivity of agriculture while at the same time, feeding the people," says Professor David Zilberman, from the Agricultural and Resource Economics.

"The biggest discussed topic is the relationship between biofuel cropping and food cropping, but that's really not what's going on here. What's going on here is to look at abandoned lands, to look at land that is not going to impact or override or interfere with food crop production," says Professor Norman Miller, from the Regional Climate System Model.

EBI is funded by a 10-year, $500 million grant from British Petroleum. The agreement is controversial because some people worry about the influence a major energy company may play in the institute's research.

The research will be publicly shared and any patents developed by the institute will be property of the University of California. In exchange, BP has a non-exclusive license for those patents.

"We think that the discoveries actually benefit society, because fundamentally BP is enabling the discovery to address a major societal problem. And unfortunately, the federal government has not as of yet stepped up to address this problem," says Dr. Somerville.

And until they do, researchers say they'll take the funding where they can get it or face an uncertain future with fossil fuels.

The federal government has set a goal that 30 percent of all transportation fuel should be biofuel by the year 2030.

Energy Biosciences Institute: www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org

United Nations World Food Program: www.wfp.org

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This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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