Green Operations

Energy Biosciences Institute Director Assesses Future of Biofuels in Interview

October 11, 2008

BERKELEY, CA --- Alternately hailed as an energy source that will save us from global warming, or condemned as a pork-barrel payout to agribusiness, biofuels get mixed marks these days in the public mind. For Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), whether and how these futuristic fuels can be "truly positive" for carbon emissions and our energy supply is, as the saying goes, "in the details."

The institute he heads has a lot on its research plate: Which crops should be grown for biofuels? How would their large-scale cultivation affect land prices, food supply, and food prices? What's their impact on soils, waterways, the air, and nearby food crops? Under what conditions would farmers choose to grow biofuel crops? When all the energy involved in their production is accounted for, is there a net gain?

It's been a year and a half since EBI — a $500 million, 10-year research initiative to explore biological approaches to the production of clean, sustainable energy — was publicly announced, in February 2007. In this interview with writer Cathy Cockrell (issued as a U.C. Berkeley press release), Somerville describes the web of  scientific, technical and social questions that EBI researchers — from U.C. Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and the BP energy company — have begun to probe in an attempt to "truly understand" the potential benefits and pitfalls of large-scale biofuel production.

Q. What EBI research teams have been assembled so far, and what questions are they trying to address?

A. Our goal is to try to understand, in the broadest sense, the issues, opportunities, and scientific problems associated with biofuels — whether biofuels are a good idea or not. And also to understand whether we can solve the specific technical issues that are associated. Over the past nine months we've implemented the first phases of the research program, so that we're now supporting about 50 research groups across a very wide range of disciplines, all focused on one general topic right now — biofuels. Of the 50 research groups, 17 are in what we call socioeconomics and environmental science. These are topics for which there's no conceivable patentability; they're strictly there to help us understand the field.

Q. Could you expand on the topics that these social-science and environmental experts are investigating?

A. One question is macroeconomics. Dave Zilberman [U.C. Berkeley professor of agriculture and resource economics] is working on the general equilibrium economic model for the world economy, to understand what the effect of large expansion in cellulosic biofuels would do to prices of other kinds of commodities on a world basis.

We're also doing micro-economics. For example, Madhu Khanna [an expert in agricultural and resource economics] at University of Illinois, is trying to understand what the economic implications are regionally — ultimately around the world, but right now she's focused on the United States. So, what does it mean to southern Illinois, for example, if a biofuel plant goes in there? What does that do to the price of land, and the competition for growing various things, and the required investment in regional infrastructure?

We have two teams of academic lawyers, working with Madhu, trying to understand what the regulatory climate would be for biofuel production, in the farming community. So, for example, farmers depend to a certain extent on crop insurance from the federal government to protect them against crop failures. Well, there's no such thing as crop insurance for biofuel crops. For the farmer growing corn for biofuels, there would be crop insurance. But for switchgrass there wouldn't be. So that will affect the willingness of farmers to grow switchgrass, and the prices of biofuel crops, because there's a risk associated with a failure. It's a very complex interplay of land use and costs. We have economists going out and talking with farmers about whether they would grow dedicated energy crops, under what circumstances they would devote any of their land to do that.

We also have several big environmental research groups, looking at every aspect they can think of regarding these dedicated energy crops. So they're looking at greenhouse-gas emissions, whether any nitrogen runoff takes place, or whether there's nitrous oxide emissions, whether there's carbon sequestration. They're looking at the pests and pathogens associated with energy crops — whether they could be reservoirs of pests and pathogens that affect food crops.

We're also doing a lot of lifecycle work. About seven faculty, altogether, are looking at full lifecycle costs for projected types of biofuels made from dedicated energy crops. They're trying to calculate the full energy inputs and outputs — including the costs of making and applying the fertilizer, and of making the tractors, everything you could possibly insert into it — but also greenhouse-gas inputs and outputs. To understand the full environmental implications of biofuels. That's a very important aspect of this work; it will allow us to understand how, if at all, biofuels need to be practiced in order to realize benefits, relative to alternatives like continued use of fossil fuel.

Q. Which crops are you concentrating on?

A. We're not doing any work on corn ethanol, or soybean, biodiesel. We're entirely next-generation crops, dedicated energy crops, such as miscanthus, which will harvest about 1.4 percent of the photons on an annualized basis. To get reasonable utilization of solar energy, you have to have very highly productive plants. Miscanthus is very highly productive.

Corn, by comparison, is between one-third and one-half as efficient as miscanthus, in terms of total biomass accumulation, if you count the corn stalks and the grain. Miscanthus has quite a strong advantage, as well, in that it involves no fertilizer, no irrigation, no runoff, no erosion. Preliminary analyses suggest much better environmental benefits. So people are talking about bracketing corn crops with these energy crops, to try and capture all the nitrogen, and the soil and mineral nutrients, that's running off the corn crops, before it gets into the rivers.

Q. Biofuels are getting a lot of attention these days — in the research community and the press. What, if anything, does EBI hope to contribute uniquely to the biofuels question?

A. There's a tremendous amount of activity in the field right now — small institutes and companies, hundreds of start-up companies, all chipping away at some piece of the puzzle. Something that we at EBI can uniquely do is try to integrate all that information. We don't have an "invented here" syndrome; we're just as interested in what people are discovering elsewhere as what we're discovering here. We're building a group of colleagues across all the disciplines, one that should be connected through the normal academic networks to knowledge creation elsewhere in the world, in all the fields. If we can integrate that knowledge, we think that will be probably our most unique contribution. And it's also something that's really compatible with what a big public university should do, in my opinion: integrate and rationalize, or make sense out of, information.

It's my general impression, from my conversations with people, that they think our goals are entirely to solve some chemical engineering problems and write patents. That's a subset of our goal. But our goal is much larger than that. Our goal is to truly understand it. I think that's actually much more valuable than making any specific discovery — is to understand all the pieces as a whole. There's no other organization that's actually doing that right now.

Q. The collaboration and dialogue across disciplines that you're aiming for —  what forums are being created for those things to happen? What is the evolving culture of the institute?

A. Part of the original goal was to bring together many of the faculty into common space. We're doing that to the extent to which we have space. Originally there was a goal to have 50,000 feet of space here at Berkeley. For now, we're bringing all of the larger groups together in common space, here and at Illinois.

At Berkeley we have two seminars a week. We've held a large number of workshops and meetings — often co-sponsored with environmental organizations, like the Ecological Society of America, a scientific organization; the Farm Foundation, an organization focused on informing farmers about technical issues, and creating policy; and the Environmental Defense Fund, a more classic environmental organization, an activist organization.

Q. Has there been any discernible shift in the thinking — any conventional wisdom — that the research to date has overturned?

A. It's a little bit early to expect some big evolution in thinking. We want to support research on all the topics that we think are relevant. So that rather than people just talking off the top of their head about what they think about this or that, we're trying to create real knowledge about it. So I think our biggest contribution in that respect this year has been the workshops. They've been pretty fantastic, in my opinion.

There was an important couple of papers published this February in Science, which raised the issue of indirect land-use effects. The basic concept of the most important of those papers was that if a farmer in Iowa devotes an acre of corn to produce ethanol, he's indirectly responsible for deforesting an acre or more of the Amazon. And that the greenhouse-gas benefits obtained from that acre of ethanol are more than lost, for hundreds of years, by the release of carbon from that deforested acre of Amazon. The fundamental argument is that the demand for food is inelastic. And therefore if you take an acre of feed production out of the world market, somewhere in the world the market will satisfy that demand. Because, according to economic modeling, food demand is inelastic.

That really triggered a lot of discussion. We know it's true that if you deforest an acre of the Amazon, enormous amounts of carbon are released from that; at the moment, they take the high-value wood off, but they burn everything else. And once you till the soil, enormous amounts of carbon are released from the soil, because the tilling introduces oxygen into the soil; it stimulates the growth of the microbes, and they off-gas. So that's not a mystery.

The big question is whether, if you divert an acre of crop land somewhere in the world, the inevitable consequence is that an undeveloped acre gets used. There are reasons it might not be true. First of all, there's about a billion acres of land that has been farmed that's not currently farmed, around the world. So one possibility would be that previously farmed land gets brought into production. Secondly, most land is not actually farmed at high productivity. In Africa, for example, I think production and productivity, for major crop is about 20 percent of what it is per acre in Europe — because the farmers in many African economies don't have the capital to invest in agriculture.

These are complicated and difficult issues. We had quite a few discussions about these issues this year — bringing mostly a lot of geographers and economists together to try to understand land use and capital flows and commodity prices. It's unresolved, but at least the questions are more narrowly or more clearly defined now.

Q. What if the research indicates that, despite their early promise, biofuels are environmentally unsustainable?

A. Our big goal is to try and do something positive for climate change. There's lots of coal, and there's lots of oil. So there's no reason to turn toward biofuels if you don't care about climate change. But if you care about climate change, we need to start looking for ways to decarbonize the energy supply. And it really matters to us whether biofuels are truly positive for carbon emissions. They need to be seriously positive, to be interesting to us.

If we're not convinced that this can be done in a really environmentally sustainable way that addresses the major challenge, there are other things we can do with the resources. Our mandate is to understand the application of modern biology to the energy sector. If we were to decide, after serious investigation, that we didn't like the looks of biofuels — for environmental or some other reasons — we would turn toward some other aspect of the energy sector. For example, we're currently reviewing proposals in the area of microbially enhanced oil recovery.

Q. But that wouldn't help with global warming.

A. It might. The Alberta tar sands are probably the biggest point source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet at the moment. And they're ramping up to 3.5 million barrels a day of production, from a current million. That's probably going to be the major source of U.S. petroleum in the long run. So we're very interested in whether there are biological approaches to recovering that oil that are less environmentally damaging.

Q. Just recovering the oil from those sands releases lots of carbon — not just burning it in a car, but recovering it?

A. Yes. To produce it, they melt it out by burning natural gas. They're burning vast amounts of fuel to decrease the viscosity. And they have these enormous tailing lakes — they're not ponds, they're lakes — and those lakes are emitting billions of liters of methane from microbial action on the mobilized petroleum. So we're quite interested in whether there's something we can do.

Q. What is your assessment of the current national conversation on biofuels? Is public understanding of the topic more nuanced than, say, a few years ago?

A. Unfortunately the press is not very good at distinguishing between the many different kinds of biofuels. Currently "biofuels," in public discourse, means corn ethanol, sugar-cane ethanol, and rape seed or soybean diesel. We're not actually in favor of three of those four. We think that sugar-cane ethanol is environmentally positive; we don't think the other three are.

It would be real useful to make a change in the lingo. We'd like to find a way to distinguish what we're doing from what's currently considered "biofuels" — because we're actually not in favor of some of those things. We're specifically not in favor of biodiesel, or much of it. If you have some used cooking oil or tallow kicking around, putting it into biodiesel is environmentally attractive. But manufacturing if from rape seed or soybean — that's actually a bad use of land.

For a hectare (2.47 acres) of soybeans, for example, you can get, maximum, about 200 gallons of biodiesel. From a hectare of miscanthus you can get 2,000 gallons of ethanol. And that hectare of soybeans also requires a lot of inputs, and has erosion and runoff. With a hectare of miscanthus, on the other hand, there's no runoffs that we're aware of, no emissions. I think it's irresponsible to use soybean acres to produce tiny amounts of fuel, diverting land away from food production. For the energy crops that we're interested in, we envision they'll be growing on land that doesn't compete with food production.

Q. Might we be using biofuels based on cellulosic technology in five to ten years?

A. Right. In fact, right now in the U.S. there's about 20 cellulosic ethanol plants starting up. They're mostly small scale — on the order of 1 million to 20 million gallons per year, being developed mostly by entrepreneurial companies, to get experience. Last year the federal government provided $360 million in matching funds for six of those companies, to help with the start-up costs. We're at the stage where we have technology that works on paper or in the laboratory. And now we need to go to the next stage and see how it really works in practice. So the expectation is that these current companies will probably lose money for quite some time. But we'll learn a lot.

Q. What, in your view, is the likely future of alternative energy, in the near and long term?

A. There are some exciting technologies under development. The one that interests me the most is what's called "photoelectric chemistry." I would distinguish that from photovoltaics. Photovoltaics involves using photons to make electricity, while photoelectric chemistry is using photons to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. There are some materials now, that can be produced as coatings, that will do the latter for a short period of time. My hope is that in the next 20 or 25 years, those photoelectric materials can be developed — making it possible to produce large amounts of hydrogen in a cost-effective manner on a very large scale.

In the long run I actually feel fairly optimistic that photoelectric chemistry may offer a long-term solution. But we're quite far away from it. We're not going to be able to do that, probably, in my lifetime. I should say that today, wind is mature. There's a lot of opportunity to produce energy from wind, and there's also a lot of opportunity to produce energy from geothermal right now. Those are ready to go, and we should be expanding those very strongly. I see biofuels as a stop gap — something that can help us deal with the challenge for the next 50 years, while we get some better technologies.


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