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Chris Somerville

Christopher Roland Somerville: Alternatives under development

Universities, companies and government take joint action to make biofuels

EDUARDO CESARChristopher Roland Somerville, who moved into botany and genetics soon after graduating in Mathematics, runs the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a research center at the University of California at Berkeley, which has R$500 million in funding, provided by the United States Department of Energy and by BP (British Petroleum), for the next 10 years. His mission, at the head of a team of almost 500 people, is to develop the cellulosic ethanol industry in the United States.

Could you tell us a bit about what you did in Michigan?
I started my work at the State University of Michigan in 1982. I was interested in developing Arabidopsis as a model organism. I studied the basic genetics and organized international collaboration to study the genome of this plant, which was the first one to be sequenced. The work was very successful. I published 240 articles and had more than 100 postgraduate and postdoctoral students. Arabidopsis became the most widely used organism in plant research. There must be about 16 thousand people working on this plant today. Of course, it wasn’t just me.

And in Stanford?
At Stanford University, where I went in 1994, I continued my work on the genetics of Arabidopsis and for 15 years I worked on the metabolism of lipids. In the mid-1990s, I became interested in finding out how cellulose was made, in order to develop recyclable materials and fuels, which were non-viable using lipids. My group identified the proteins and the genes involved in the production of cellulose, the most abundant material on Earth. We were able to produce mutations in several genes and to see how the molecules of cellulose were made in real time. Our target is to optimize cellulose production for several uses. In 2004, the Department of Energy asked me to organize a study on what would be required to develop a cellulosic ethanol industry. We brought together scientists, discussed the problem and published a book, Breaking the biological barriers to cellulosic ethanol. The Department of Energy and BP became interested in developing research centers on cellulosic ethanol. In Stanford, this wasn’t possible, but Berkeley, which is nearby, was interested. In the mid-2000’s there was a great research center at Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, led by Steve Chu, currently the Secretary of Energy in the United States. Steve asked me to go to Berkeley to develop a major study on cellulosic ethanol based on the study of the Department of Energy. I started going to Berkeley in 2004, 2005 and to work with a few colleagues, in particular with Jay Keasling. Keasling and I wrote the proposals and managed to get US$25 million in financing from the Department of Energy to build JBEI, the Joint BioEnergy Institute. Keasling is the director of JBEI, where 180 people work. BP also agreed to finance an institute in Berkeley, providing US$ 50 million a year. This was called EBI, the Energy Biosciences Institute, which I head. It’s a funny situation. We suddenly have two institutes that we built up at the same time from scratch. EBI has 123 professors at Berkeley and Illinois, 180 postgraduate students and 150 post-doctoral students. Overall, there are 480 people; about 450 work on some aspect of research into cellulose biofuels.

What is the outlook for the production of cellulosic ethanol?
BP is building a commercial scale plant of cellulosic ethanol in Florida, which should go on-stream in 2013. We think it will work because BP has a US$130 million demonstration plant in Louisiana. All the ethanol production processes are being tested and our target at EBI is to make them work better. It’s very hard to determine costs precisely, but probably the production of cellulosic ethanol will have to be subsidized at first, because the capital costs are high. We’re working on many topics. We have economists, who work to determine which types of materials can be used to produce fuels, which type of contracts we must sign with producers, things of this type. We have lawyers, who take care of public policies and regulations; ecologists, who indicate how to raise crops sustainably, preserving biodiversity; mechanical engineers, who take care of the logistics of harvesting, compacting and transporting biomass; agronomists, who examine how to manage the plantations; pathologists, working on the illnesses that might affect the plants; microbiologists, who try to improve the fermentation techniques; chemical engineers, who work on the production processes; and enzymologists, who try to discover better enzymes. We try to look at the entire field at the same time, integrating the topics, because in this area everything is interconnected.

What do you do to motivate people to work together?
It’s not a major problem, because I control the money. When I ask them to work together, they are quite helpful. We make group work easier by organizing workshops among different teams for them to understand what each other does and to find shared targets. Scientists need to get credit for what they do; we have to pay a lot of attention to this. We must respect the contribution of each one of them.

One of your targets is to replace corn with other grasses to make ethanol.
Yes. We no longer employ corn; our target is to use plants that can be used entirely and that can grow on land that is unsuitable for corn. These perennial grasses are very attractive because they grow on slopes, whereas corn and soy do not. Grasses and trees, we’re also interested in trees. We’re preparing to announce how to grow and process Miscanthus; not only Miscanthus. We have research sites on 16 farms in the United States and we interact with 30 botanical gardens, which send us other species, which we are testing throughout the country.

What is the EBI agreement with BP like?
The knowledge is open; we publish everything. The patents belong to the university and BP has a license from the university. BP automatically has a non-exclusive license and the right to acquire an exclusive license.

When will cellulosic ethanol become available?
We already have it in small quantities today, but BP will start running the first factory in 2013. I think DuPont will as well. In 20 years, 300 cellulosic ethanol plants should be running; that is what the government of the United States is counting on. The expectation is to produce 22 billion gallons of ethanol a year in 2020. It’s a lot, but after the first plant starts to run well, building others will be relatively easy.

Do you believe that it’s still possible to improve the efficiency of corn ethanol production?
Yes. Corn ethanol has achieved efficiency gains on an ongoing basis. One of the most recent gains concerns enzymes that eliminate the need to cook the starch, reducing costs, and these are already working on a commercial scale. We’ll use less corn when we manage to make better use of biomass. We believe that the technology of cellulosic ethanol production will get to Brazil soon.