BP partner awards 'mega-grants'

By Susanne Retka Schill
The Energy Biosciences Institute-a collaboration of the University of California, Berkeley; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign-recently awarded a total of $19.27 million to 50 projects and programs focusing on cellulosic ethanol.

Another $15.73 million in grants will be announced this summer. The institute was the recipient of global energy firm BP Corp.'s 10-year, $350 million ‘mega-grant' commitment to cellulosic biofuels research.

EBI Director Chris Somerville described EBI's research effort as a comprehensive analysis of cellulosic ethanol. The projects cover a wide range of research, starting with existing programs and extending to new areas. Thus, the socioeconomic and environmental work will be global, extending to land ownership issues and life cycle analyses, among other topics. The feedstock development work will include test plots around the world, starting with Miscanthus and switchgrass as models, but looking at other feedstocks as well as the equipment needed to plant, harvest and store those feedstocks. Metagenomic studies will be looking at the termite gut, cow rumen, compost heap and forest floor to study how nature breaks down cellulose. In addition to biological systems, EBI research includes a strong chemistry component that will explore novel catalysts and solvent systems, Somerville said. "EBI is academic," he added. "We're not doing anything that is near-market."

The $19.27 million in funding was divided into four out of five broad categories: $4.77 million for feedstock development, $6.96 million for biomass depolymerization work, $2.21 million for biofuels production studies, and $5.33 million for studies on environmental, social and economic dimensions. Funding for the fifth broad category of fossil-fuel bioprocessing will be announced this summer. Somerville said there may also be projects funded in areas that were underrepresented in the faculty-submitted research proposals.

Besides the $35 million per year over 10 years in open research conducted by the EBI, Somerville said BP will commit $150 million over 10 years internally in a closed research component, tapping into the company's expertise in process engineering.

Descriptions of the 50 programs and projects can be found on the EBI Web site at www.energybioscienceinstitute.org.