The $500 million pact between UC Berkeley and one of the world’s largest oil companies went into effect Wednesday, though actual work had begun in June.
The grant will fund both academic and corporate researchers at UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—though other institutions may also be involved, BP’s chief scientist told a gathering at a U.S. Energy Association (USEA) meeting in June.
While the last signature had been gathered only this week, research had begun as early as June, BP Executive Director Chris Somerville told the same USEA meeting.
Funded by the British oil company, Berkeley has already sent researchers to Africa and India in search of sites for planting crops.
UC Regents voted in March to build a new research facility to house the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), BP’s chosen name for the project that university officials described as “the first public-private institution of this scale in the world.”
The project will involve a wide range of academic disciplines, and program officials have already solicited and received proposals from faculty at both universities and the lab.
”We are very pleased that the institute’s journey to develop new, cleaner sources of energy has begun,” said Somerville in a statement released by the university Wednesday. “Our mission is to harness the potential of bioenergy, to make discoveries and to help them become commercially viable so they can benefit the world. The institute will also examine the social, economic and environmental implications of using cellulosic biofuels to meet a significant proportion of the earth’s energy needs.”
Cellulosic fuels are derived from plant fiber, rather than the more easily recovered sugars harvested from the crops like soybeans and corn for production of ethanol.
EBI will also look into using microbes to create new fuels from coal and to recover oil from depleted wells., according to the grant proposal.
While the university has portrayed the EBI as a program designed to make the United State independent by using marginal croplands to grow non-food plants for fuel, BP Chief Scientist Steve Koonin told the USEA that the company’s goal is a program that creates crops focused on tropical climates, though research will also develop plants for all climate zones.
A nuclear physicist, Koonin spearheaded the process that led to the choice of Berkeley among five company-selected candidates. He is currently on leave from his post as provost and intellectual property manager for the California Institute of Technology.
BP is the company known for decades as British Petroleum.
The master agreement and other documents are available at www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/11/14_ebisigning.shtml
Critics of the BP and its role on campus have charged that the company’s plans to use genetically modified plants and microbes threaten Third World countries, which are least able to resist the intrusions of multinational corporations.
UC Berkeley professors including Ignacio Chapela and Miguel Altieri say the project will displace farmland needed for food crops in poor nations and replace them with patented crops owned by multinationals.
Asked for a comment on the announcement of the signing, Chapela responded, “Very little else to note for the moment. Perhaps only to note the genius of whoever named the file of the agreement signed: it is called ‘Final Execution.’”
The title refers to the document posted on the university’s web site.