Thursday, March 08, 2007

Joining Forces on Biofuels

Last month BP made headlines with its announcement of a major biofuels research alliance with the Universities of California and Illinois, and the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. They will endow the new Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) with $500 million dollars of funding, which is serious money even in the oil business. A video link (high bandwidth) I received via the U.C. Berkeley alumni association provided some fascinating insights into this agreement, and I think it makes worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in biofuels and public-private partnerships on alternative energy. While pointing out some of the challenges this initiative still faces, it highlights the potential of fusing the broad, interdisciplinary approach of a couple of large public universities with the product-and-profit orientation of a big energy company. Although corporate/industry alliances are routine in many areas, the scale and focus of this one are unique within the energy industry.

As with any announcement of this kind, this video of the UC chancellor and the top researchers involved in setting up the alliance includes a sizable helping of campus pride and rah rah. When you look at the Nobel Prize roster and other vital statistics of the Berkeley campus, however, this seems entirely relevant to BP's selection of the university for this alliance. UC and its partners bring impressive capabilities to the party. (End of PR plug.)

On the webcast I heard two items that caught my attention. The first was Berkeley's intention to approach this alliance from a much wider perspective than the biological and engineering aspects of biofuels. They will involve a broad swath of disciplines, including social sciences that may be crucial in evaluating the systemic impact of expanding and re-orienting global agriculture to produce much greater volumes of fuel, while still providing the food required by a population that is expected to grow to at least 9 billion by mid-century. BP appears equally interested in that kind of inter-disciplinary breadth, as well, recognizing the importance of sustainability in determining the long-term viability of any fuel technology that might come out of this endeavor. Having spent two years on the Berkeley campus during graduate school, I can easily imagine that this was not only an attractive feature for BP, but a strict precondition for Berkeley's participation. Nor was I surprised by the reaction against the tie-up from the persistent radical fringes of the campus. Berkeley is still Berkeley, 40 years after the Free Speech Movement.

I'm also intrigued by the idea that this approach might do more than just ensure wider vetting and validation of new technology before it is implemented; it might actually stimulate entirely new ideas, through cross-fertilization that simply wouldn't be possible within a large energy concern. Oil companies employ lots of engineers, chemists, and geoscientists, but relatively few soil biologists, ecologists, or geneticists, to name just a few of the fields this effort could touch. In a way, this represents a microcosm of the original promise of the Internet, before it was deluged with spam, chatter, and misinformation. Berkeley was one of the nodes of the Arpanet, a forerunner of the Internet, and you can bet that the new EBI will have some clever networking approaches to stimulate creativity and expanded thinking on biofuels.

Finally, I liked Professor Kammen's perspective on how far $500 million goes, today. I believe he put it exactly right, that while this is now about the cost of entry for a new drug or a new car model, it's probably just enough to make a real difference on biofuels, provided that the new Energy Biosciences Institute team is smart about how they employ it. A lot of people will be watching the results.

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