California officials hurled the Golden State's money and technical prowess into winning BP's new Energy Biosciences Institute. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied BP executives personally and staked the Berkeley-led bid with $40 million in state bonds, while University of California president Bob Dynes talked of "seizing this golden ring" to turn the Bay Area into an alternative energy mecca.
Those efforts evidently paid off: The Berkeley-led team beat back competing bids from MIT, Cambridge University and Imperial College of London, as well as the University of California at San Diego.
Today, Schwarzenegger takes a stage in Berkeley with BP American president Robert Malone and an unexpected California biofuels partner, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, to accept the award, alongside university officials and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist who more than anyone else drove area labs and universities to compete for the research grant.
Other players on the team include Stanford, UC-Davis, biotech stalwarts such as Genencor International and Amyris Biotechnologies, and Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories/California, home to one of the nation's most advanced engine and fuel combustion labs.
Illinois and BP officials will conduct a simultaneous announcement at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which expects to receive about 10 percent of the BP biofuels research funding and is a leader in crop biology. The state is the nation's second largest producer of corn ethanol, with plenty of available land and a solid base of political support for biofuels.
Energy experts already recognize that corn ethanol, as made today, isn't going to wean America off foreign oil and generates roughly as much planet-warming greenhouse gases in its production and combustion as fossil fuels. Former BP CEO Lord Browne said the new, $500 million biofuels institute over the next decade would engage in "radical" research into other plants and other fuels.
"Bioscience is already transforming modern medicine and we believe it can bring immense benefits to the energy sector," he said in a statement announcing the competition last June.
For biofuels to make a major dent in the global transportation fuel supply, BP chief scientist and former Caltech provost Steve Koonin has called for a new industry of dedicated bioenergy farming, on millions of acres and demanding the skills of plant geneticists, chemical engineers and agronomists.
That vision dovetails with one that Berkeley lab's Chu has laid out in foundation and corporate boardrooms for a mini-Manhattan project in biofuels and advanced, nanotech solar cells, called the Helios Project.
University officials pitched the idea to Schwarzenegger last year and found him enthusiastic. The governor's proposed budget pledges $30 million in bonds for the new Helios lab, plus $40 million more if BP chose Berkeley for its bioenergy institute. The extra $70 million landed in the 11th hour of BP's competition, and state officials said it showed California was serious about its bids.
"It is because of the governor's leadership that UC-Berkeley has been awarded this significant research partnership," said Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear.
"I think it's fair to say that the governor's leadership on alternative fuels and global warming certainly makes California an attractive place to do this type of research," he said.
The Berkeley-led team boasts a few stars that suggest an ambitious plan for boosting plant and distilling efficiencies for biofuels. Berkeley lab's Chu quietly has hired Chris Somerville, a founding father of modern plant genomics who heads the Carnegie Institution's Department of Plant Biology at Stanford and co-founded Mendel Biotechnology. Somerville has talked of bringing a "green revolution" to bear on the relatively untouched DNA of switchgrasses, poplars and other potential bioenergy crops.
Another lab star, Jay Keasling, owns some of the pioneering patents in synthetic biology and has talked of mixing and matching the plant-devouring mechanics of termites to create unique new organisms to produce biofuels.
Contact Ian Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (510) 208-6458.