UC Berkeley Biofuel Critic Fires a Farewell Salvo

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:49:00 PM

Tad Patzek bid his farewell to Berkeley Saturday, launching a final, stinging attack on the university’s half-billion-dollar-partnership to turn plants into fuels. 

Because of favorable coverage given to the claims of biofuel boosters, “it is widely believed that two plus two is twenty-two,” he said. “But there are some scientists who still believe that two plus two is equal to four.” 

Organized by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation’s Washington., D.C., exchange fellowship program, the program also featured Berkeley’s most prominent biofuel booster, Chris Somerville, who heads the $500 million research program funded by BP (formerly British Petroleum), along with a corporate ethanol advocate who is partnered with the university and another UC Berkeley scientist who makes hydrogen from algae. 

Formerly a professor of geoengineering at UC Berkeley, Patzek becomes chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin Cockrell School of Engineering on Sept. 1. 

Political engagement comes easily to Patzek, who was a Solidarity activist in his native Poland before coming to the United States on a Fulbright fellowship. He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1990. 

Somerville, who comes to Berkeley by way of Stanford and the Carnegie Institution, said the agenda of the BP-funded Energy Bioscience Institute (EBI) “is entirely driven by climate change” and the search for “options for decarbonizing energy.” 

EBI, which encompasses UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will also explore ways to harvest Canadian tar sands and projects other than its main emphasis, which is harvesting fuels from cellulose, the tough fiber that makes plant walls, rather than the sugars and oils used for the current crop of fuels. 

But Patzek said the intensified push for plant-based fuels “will result in huge destruction of ecological diversity and biosystems that are vital to the survival of humanity” at the same time that per capita food production and crop yield are declining, accompanied by a global hyperinflation of food prices. 

“Food staple production is not keeping up with population supply,” he said. 

Somerville said that EBI research will focus on developing crops for planting “on more than a billion acres of agricultural land that has been abandoned,” with U.S. production concentrated in eastern coastal states. 

For the moment, Somerville said, “we’re not advocating anything. Our goal is to understand” the processes for conversion of cellulose into fuel, thanks to the financial support of a company that, he said, controls about five percent of the world’s energy supply.  

But Patzek said, “If I were to make a pitch for something, I would urging a pitch for photovoltaics,” technology that converts sunlight to electricity, rather than plants in fuels. 

Doug Dickson is vice president of Pacific Ethanol, a company which has partnered with the Emeryville-based Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) to develop a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant. 

JBEI is a U.S. Department of Energy–funded partnership of Cal, UC Davis and the UCB–run energy department labs devoted solely to biofuels. The program is headed by UC Berkeley’s Jay Keasling, an early organizer of the EBI funding application. DOE has awarded JBEI and the company $25 million to develop the plant to transform poplar trees into fuel in partnership with a Dutch company. 

Dickson also touted his firm’s efforts to create a “cornplex,” harvesting the nutrients in corn as cattle feed while transforming the remaining fiber into fuels. 

“Our effort focuses on a different biofuel,” said Anastasios Melis, a professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. 

Melis and his colleagues are harvesting hydrogen generated by photosynthesis of Chlamydomonas algae, which generate the gas within water-filled clear polyethylene tubes as large as a meter in diameter. 

As currently developed, a 20-mile wide strip from San Francisco to Los Angeles could generate enough hydrogen to meet all the nation’s electrical needs. 

But Patzek said that the proposals to transform biomass—living plants—into fuels “show complete disregard of the environment, the earth’s ecosystems and how much we can take from our environment, a process, he said “which is driving the destruction of the planet. 

“I am the petroleum engineer here,” he said. I am the ‘dirty’ guy.” But, he said, while all approaches to satisfying humanity’s energy hunger are destructive, “there are things that we can do that are less damaging.” 

But Patzek was in the minority, and the Berkeley biofuel boom continues, minus the presence of one of its most eloquent critics. But Patzek has left an extensive range of papers focusing on critique of biofuels at his Berkeley website, http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/MyBiofuelPapersTop.htm.