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New UC-BP Biofuel Lab Opening Set for July 2010

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 06, 2007

BP—the multinational once known as British Petroleum—will be able to move into its new digs in Berkeley in three years, according to plans given to would-be builders. 

The projected date is July 22, 2010. 

Construction of the Helios Energy Research Facility (HERF) on a prime piece of hillside at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) could start as early as next January, according to the documents from a June 28 presentation by project director Joe Harkins. 

The building will house researchers—both academic and corporate—working at the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), the $500 million research program funded by BP under the administration of UC Berkeley. Researchers will comes form the university, the lab, and BP. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, will also be conducting crop testing and other research.  

The facility will also house two other programs, an inorganic physical sciences program working on alternative energy and a lab for producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) not included under the EBI’s extensive program of GMO research. 

While earlier specifications for the lab building had placed the height of the building at four stories, the plans by SmithGroup, a national architectural firm which has offices in San Francisco, show a central core that rises to eight floors, including a rooftop with a greenhouse and a large space for mechanical equipment. 

Wings on either side of the core rise to six floors on the northern end and five on the south, tiering off to the three levels and then one at the southernmost end. The unusual floor arrangement is attributable partly to the sloping nature of the site. 

The sprawling structure is located in the southeasternmost complex of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the so-called Nano Campus, and sited directly across Lee Road from the Molecular Foundry, LBNL’s state-of-the-art nanotechnology research facility and another Harkins-supervised project. 

Harkins, who is also charged with the demolition of the lab’s Bevatron building, was also project director for the foundry building, another SmithGroup design. 

Part of one floor in the HERF’s southern wing is reserved for nanotechnology offices. 

In addition to extensive offices and laboratories—including a suite of so-called “synthetic biology” labs for genetically modifying crops and microbes to produce fuels with the aim of making the United State independent of foreign fuel sources—the structure also contains a cafe and an auditorium. 

Both nanotechnology and the genetic modification of organisms for human ends have sparked controversy and protests, largely driven by fears of the unintended consequences that often accompany new technologies. 

Berkeley is quickly becoming a major center of GMO research for producing what have been described by supporters as biofuels and by critics as agrofuels. 

The 160,000-square-foot building is budgeted at $160 million—up $35 million from previous estimates. 

The $1,000-a-square-foot cost stems in part from the high costs mandated by the need to keep vibration to a minimum and to shield expensive electronic equipment and experiments from electromagnetic interference. 

Included in the plans are two laser labs, an ultra-fast optical lab, “synthetic biology” labs, biophysics and catalysis labs and other unspecified labs, as well as conference rooms scattered throughout the building. 

Of the lab and office space, about 14,100 square feet would be reserved exclusively for corporate-only research by scientists from the British oil giant. 

Among the selling points presented at the June 28 meeting was the lab’s status as a “high profile project,” which had drawn media attention and “support by Swarzenegger [sic],” referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strong support of the BP grant. 

While university and lab officials have hailed the program agenda of providing the country with a source of transportation fuels that didn’t rely on foreign sources, critics like Tadeusz Patzek, a UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering as well as a former oil company scientist, charge that biofuel crops produced at the lab won’t be confined to the U.S. borders. 

Patzek sent project critics a Tuesday mail linking to an Associated Press story about a raid by Brazilian authorities on an ethanol plantation in the Amazon, where the liberated 1,108 slave laborers who were being forced to work 13-hour days harvesting sugar cane for refining into the fuel. 

The raid resulted from the efforts of the Catholic Church’s Land Pastoral group and its leader, Father James Thorlby, who spoke by a delayed telephone recording to an April 26 campus teach-in opposing the EBI project. 

Critics have charged that fuel crops will displace Third World farmers, cause further devastation of threatened rain forests and lead to further increases in food prices as crops are grown for fuel rather than food. 

China moved last month to ban the use of corn for ethanol after rising prices for the grain—a basic food of livestock—led to rapid increases in the price of pork, a staple of the Chinese diet. 



Accompanying the June 28 presentation was a timeline that began with the March 13 funding approval by the UC Board of Regents. 

The document also revealed that conceptual plans were begun on Jan. 2, a month before the BP’s announcement that Berkeley had been picked from among five university’s chosen as possible recipients. 

The proposal calls for selecting a contractor by Aug. 24, well before the projected approval of the project’s Environmental Impact Report next Jan. 17. 

If all goes as planned, site work would begin the next day, with the first foundation work starting Sept. 19. The projected date that scientists could enter and start work would be July 22, 2010. 

The full set of documents is available online at under the heading “Helios Building.”