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September 28, 2007

Bay Area’s Joint BioEnergy Institute Gets Financial Kick-Start from DOE

BERKELEY, CA — The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), one of three new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Research Centers, will receive $6.7 million in initial funding (FY2007) to begin research on biofuels – liquid fuels derived from the solar energy stored in plant biomass. This funding is in addition to $125 million DOE plans to invest in JBEI over the next five years, part of a total $375 million DOE investment in biofuels basic research.

JBEI is a partnership between DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California campuses of Berkeley and Davis, and the Carnegie Institution. JBEI will be headquartered in a leased building in the East Bay, central to all partners. In the meantime, work will begin in the Potter Street bioscience facility of Berkeley Lab and at other partner institutions.

Raymond L. Orbach spacer
Raymond L. Orbach

“Biofuels represent one of the most promising alternative energy sources,” said DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond L. Orbach, whose Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research Genomics:GTL research program is funding the Bioenergy Research Centers.  “Making biofuels cost-effective will require transformational breakthroughs in basic science.  This early infusion of funds will enable JBEI to get underway immediately on the urgent quest for the breakthroughs our nation needs to usher in a new biofuels economy.”

Steve Chu, Director of Berkeley Lab, said, "With this new Institute, Berkeley Lab will continue to play a critical role in helping to solve the transportation fuel problem in the United States and the world."

Said Jay Keasling, Director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley Professor of Chemical Engineering, who serves as JBEI’s Chief Executive Officer, “We are delighted that the formal agreement between DOE and the JBEI partners has been completed so that we can begin our work to solve one of the most important challenges of our time. DOE funding will enable JBEI researchers to perform research that can break down the most significant barriers to the development of affordable, renewable, transportation fuels from biomass."

Added Harvey Blanch, a chemical engineer with both Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley who serves as JBEI’s Chief Science and Technology Officer, “JBEI's focused research program will provide the scientific and engineering advances required to make biofuels a major component of the nation's energy supply. These supplemental funds highlight both the significance of the problem and the urgency to address it." 

spacer Jay Keasling
Jay Keasling

Research has shown that harnessing even a tiny fraction of the total solar energy available each year could meet most if not all of the nation’s annual transportation energy needs, and scientific studies have consistently ranked biofuels among the top candidates for accomplishing this goal. However, as Undersecretary Orbach acknowledged, the commercial-scale production of clean, efficient, cost-effective biofuels will require technology-transforming scientific breakthroughs.

JBEI researchers intend to meet this challenge through the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into biofuels. Lignocelluose, the most abundant organic material on the planet, is a mix of complex sugars and lignin that gives strength and structure to plant cell walls. By extracting simple fermentable sugars from lignocellulose and producing biofuels from them, the potential of the most energy-efficient and environmentally benign fuel crops can be realized.

To promote the rapid commercialization of JBEI results and in keeping with its Bay Area heritage, this DOE Bioenergy Research Center is uniquely organized along the lines of a biotech startup company, with very focused research objectives and a structure to enable it to quickly pursue promising scientific and technological developments. The goal of JBEI is to achieve measurable success within the next five years.

In addition to JBEI, a second DOE Bioenergy Research Center is being run by a partnership under the leadership of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and a third by a partnership led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University.

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