Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) joined with officials from two cities and a leading developer Monday to unveil the site of a $135 million biofuel lab.
Though announced months after BP declared Berkeley the winner of a $500 million corporate biofuel research program, the federal lab will be the first to commence tweaking genes in the drive to turn plants into fuel for planes, trains and automobiles.
UC officials and officers of the British oil company have yet to sign a final agreement spelling out the details of the more lucrative pact.
LBNL chemical engineer Jay Keasling, CEO of the new Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and a central figure in the BP program, served as emcee of Monday’s event at EmeryStation East, the new Emeryville building that will house the lab, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to turn plants into transportation fuels.
Called Jay-bay by cognoscenti, the Emeryville lab will fuse the research efforts of two UC campuses, Berkeley and Davis, with the Carnegie Institution for Science and three UC Berkeley-administered federal energy labs—LBNL, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia.
“This is a great moment for us,” said Keasling, who said the UC Board of Regents, the DOE and Wareham Development signed the contract for the 65,000-square-foot lab last week.
The lab, which will open sometime in the spring, occupies the fourth floor of Wareham’s just-finished building at 5885 Hollis St.
Keasling will also be a familiar figure on the building’s first floor, where his own privately held and patent-seeking biotech company—Amyris Technologies—has just leased a lab of its own.
That company’s CEO is a former BP vice president hired while UC Berkeley was negotiating the half-billion-dollar Energy Biosciences Institute that the British oil company awarded to the university in February. The firm employs at least three other BP personnel.
While most biofuel currently in use is corn-derived ethanol, Keasling said JBEI will focus on other plants, including rice straw, switchgrass and Arabidopsis, a plant in the mustard family.
Keasling said work at the lab will focus on breaking down plant cellulose, drawing on research on microbes found in the gut of the common termite, where they break down wood into digestible sugars that fuel the termite’s ravenous rampages.
DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond L. Orbach, a former chancellor of UC Riverside, sent written congratulations, expressing his hope that the center “will become a crucible for transformational discoveries.”
The George W. Bush administration made biofuel development a major effort of the DOE, declaring alternative energy a matter of national security.
“I can’t think of a more profound privilege than to be associated with Jay-bay,” said Wareham founder Rich Robbins, whose company has dubbed the building a “center for noble and Nobel research.”
“This is a very auspicious occasion,” said Emeryville Mayor Nora Davis.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was also on hand, praising the new lab’s work as “a definitive partnership that’s going to be working together to make a difference.”
Also on hand was the mayor’s City Council colleague, Gordon Wozniak.
Keasling said the lab wouldn’t be working on corn, the primary source of ethanol—known in the old days as white lightning or corn liquor.
A controversial crop derivative, ethanol isn’t as efficient as gasoline and can’t be transmitted through pipelines.
Instead, he said, JBEI will be seeking ways to break down plant cellulose into fuels more similar to petroleum-derived gasoline.
No lab efforts will focus on genetically modified crops, though the gene-engineering technology developed for working on microbes and on other technologies for breaking down plant cell walls could have later applications for altering plants, he said.
While most of the research will occur at the Emeryville lab, crop testing is slated for fields at UC Davis, where the ground is more suitable for growing rice.
The primary microbe slated for gene-tweaking is E. coli, which is found in the guts of most animals.
Researchers will also be working on organisms found in the multi-chambered digestive systems of cattle, which are assembly lines for breaking down cellulose into food.
Keasling acknowledged that there are potential conflicts of interests for researchers who have their own private biotech startup companies, and JBEI’s other lead figure, Chris Somerville, has a biofuel-seeking company of his own, Mendel Technology.
“There are a lot of conflicts,” Keasling said, “and we have to manage those appropriately.” He said the new lab will use the same conflict-handling mechanisms now in place at the university.
Keasling said the new lab wouldn’t need any significant measures to contain the altered microbes because production “won’t take place in this facility within that five-year period.”