BERKELEY -- A futuristic GPS device, given the task of locating a solution for today's transportation-energy versus environmental-sustainability battle instead of an address, might very well lead to the new, five-story, $133 million biofuels research building located near the northwest edge of the UC Berkeley campus.
There, the Energy Biosciences Institute, established in 2007 by international oil and gas company BP as a public-private partnership with UC Berkeley and now including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is leading the race to develop nonfood, liquid biofuels.
The move into the trapezoidal facility, targeted to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Gold Certification, strikes a number of winning notes, according to Managing Director Susan Jenkins.
"Our previous attempts to locate near LBNL in the Berkeley hills had homeowners concerned about traffic and proper use of the land," Jenkins says, in an interview following a tour of the building. "When the opportunity came to use the site of an abandoned California state health department building, we realized it was a viable option."
Beyond viable, it was a chance to capitalize on lower construction costs in a rough economy, consolidate over 300 researchers in one place, and create a 21st century, environmentally smart lab.
Project Manager Sally McGarrahan lists the building's special features, noting the inclusion of "Pass-through air systems, automated fume hood ventilation with dropping sashes, lighting controls sensitive to occupancy and location within the building, translucent sun shades ...."
There's more, but the blindingly white walls, automatic roll-down shades in glass-windowed offices, minus-80-degree freezers and sleek, highly-insulating exterior all add up to signature style for SmithGroupJJR, the firm that also designed the Bay Area's $49.5 million Molecular Foundry for LBNL and the University of California at San Francisco's $254 million Smith Cardiovascular Research Building.
While an attractive, well-conceived shell garners architectural awards, a research facility is judged according to different standards.
"Institutes funded by the Department of Energy are having the highest impact on biofuels," Jenkins says, naming comparable research centers across the nation. "But those others don't have standalone areas devoted to environmental sciences. They keep it in mind, but here, we fund it directly."
EBI's original allocation of resources into five divisions, collectively aimed at developing commercially-viable alternatives to the use of human food feedstock (i.e., corn) for liquid transportation biofuels, is scrutinized with an eye to environmental impact and measured with a societal yardstick.
"Biofuels were being singled out, but nobody was asking the deeper questions about how the land is best used. What crops are best planted in a specific location? Is a community justified in cutting down a rain forest?" she asks. "If we have an impact on the environment over the long term, I hope it leads to a place where we're looking at land use on a broader scale."
In the labs and on EBI's 320-acre farm, "cellulosic bio fuels" are the buzzwords.
"We're developing organisms that can co-ferment," Jenkins explains. "These are different sugars that can simultaneously be made into fuel, like wine fermentation."
Researchers are also examining synthetic substitutes to solve problems of waste or expensive steps in the fuel's production pipeline. And natural products, like Arizona's agave plants, are under trial to determine potential biomass yields.
Jenkins is particularly excited about the work EBI is doing to increase the use of "waste" materials lost in standard ethanol production.
"It's not just the kernel that has value, it's the cellulosics: the nonfood cell walls, leaves and other plant material," she insists. "And instead of going deeper into the Gulf, we're looking at drawing more from existing (fuel) reservoirs. Most of the time, 50 percent of the fuel is still there, but not retrievable, when we pull out. We can figure out ways to get that oil out."
Criticism, when it arises, is directed at the association with BP. According to Jenkins, the company pays $35 million per year to retain all the nonexclusive rights to research projects. The university retains rights to any patent filed and can license those patents to others. BP pays an additional royalty to purchase exclusive rights.
"People worried that a corporation involved at this level would sacrifice the integrity of the research," Jenkins admits. "But there are guiding principals that have been in place from the beginning that protect the researchers and students."
After a 30-day period to capture value by filing a patent, discoveries can be shared and submitted for publication. Jenkins insists the academic/corporate blend adds vigor.
"If there's a change that will lead our researchers down the path to industry, they tell us," Jenkins says. "And at the corporation, if they don't know the science to solve a problem, we're scientific researchers who want to help. It's a win-win."
A formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for December. Information on the EBI can be found at its website at www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org.