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10 Questions for Chris Somerville, the new Director of the Energy Bioscience Institute

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somerville.jpgThe wheels of a $500 million academic and industry collaboration to fight carbon emissions with bio-energy, are starting to turn. On the 1st of December Christopher Somerville will officially start his work as the Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, (EBI), a first of its kind, half a billion dollar partnership between energy giant BP, and the labs of UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The EBI will initially focus research on biofuels, and has shortlisted 50 projects. These proposals came from departments as diverse as political science, economics and sociology to agronomy, agricultural engineering, chemistry and microbiology. The Institute will ultimately have over 100 faculty members and between 200 to 300 students and post-docs working on different research projects.

Somerville made the jump from a 14 year stint in the Department of Biological Sciences at rival Stanford, because, as says, like most scientists, he was growing ever more concerned about climate change. He is eager to work with BP, and beyond the obvious financial commitment, he hopes working with the company will help the researchers stick to solving real problems, but also thinks that the institute will be able to educate the energy conglomerate.

While Somerville isn’t worried about BP’s influence on the institute, he is concerned that the negative mainstream media discussion of corn ethanol will poison the whole concept of biofuels before researchers get a chance to develop more environmentally-attractive set of practices. At the institute they will be looking at biofuel options from dedicated energy crops that have a 10-fold plus energy return and no run off. That sounds pretty good. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation with the new Director of the EBI, Chris Somerville:

Q. What was your reason to make the move?

A. I am concerned about climate change and I was attracted by the opportunity to partner with one of the largest energy companies in the world. I’m hoping this will both inform the academic work — that we work on real problems — but on the other hand, we also get a chance to educate the company at the same time.

In the area of biofuels there is a lot of opinion floating around. Much of it wrong in my opinion. It can be very hard for the energy companies to really see through the smoke, to the real opportunities and real problems. Through this relationship we may be able to establish a level of trust between the 2 types of organizations, academic and industrial, so that we can speak plainly to each other. That can have a world changing effect.

Q. What was your reaction to the Berkeley protests?

A. It was a very small group and they are well known professional protesters. At our partner the University of Illinois there was absolutely no ripple; everyone was extremely positive. At Stanford where there is major corporate funding — the Exxon, GE, Toyota, Schlumberger funding project — there haven’t been any negative effects as far as I’ve heard. And I’m not expecting any here. The idea that we are going to be taken over by a company is just silly, I’d like to think it is the other way around and that we will have a big influence on the company.

Q. Out of the 50 research proposals what’s an example of novel idea that springs to mind?

A. A number of chemists have proposed the development of novel catalysts for hydrolysis of biomass [breaking the biomass down into the constituent chemicals]. It is an area that hasn’t really been developed up until now; there are hardly any published papers in that whole general area.

Q. What size of funding are most groups getting?

A. Well, our total budget, is $35 million per year, so we are going to spend that every year. That is our goal.

Q. Craig Venter spoke about synthetic biology and biofuels this week down on Sand Hill Road. What do you think about Venture’s research?

A. I know him well, I was on the board of his institute for 5 years. Craig’s ambitions are far beyond biofuels; he has a much bigger goal in mind. The ability to significantly change the genetic makeup of bacteria is going to be a relevant technology. It already is. Dupont is currently making a compound called propanediol, which they use to make fiber from corn starch by a biological conversion. The bacteria they use for that is highly engineered. We will have some people doing an aspect of synthetic biology here.

Q. Will the institute be creating a relationship with the venture community?

A. That is something we haven’t completely settled on yet. BP has told us that they’re generally supportive of the idea of spinning out companies as technologies mature. We’ve had conversations with many of the local venture firms and we will likely set up networking meetings. We don’t know to what extent we can manage that because right now we don’t have any interest in favoring any particular firm. Everything were doing from a university perspective is to try to make it broadly available to the community.

Q. As far as IP ownership is there a set standard relationship?

A. The university owns it all. BP has automatic non-exclusive license to everything that they have supported.

Q. So you said there is a lot of incorrect information about biofuels. What do you find to be the most aggregious?

A. We’re not working on corn at all. But to everybody on the street that’s what “biofuels” means, corn ethanol. There is quite a disconnect between what we will be working on and what is perceived by the public. We’re looking for second and third generation biofuels that are much more similar to biodiesel and biopetrol than ethanol. We see the whole corn ethanol thing as a very early phenomenon, where some 5,000 year old technology has been applied in a very short term way to creating ethanol.

Our vision of the future is quite different than that. We think we are going to be using dedicated energy crops that are more productive than corn, and have better properties than ethanol. A criticism of ethanol is that is has a poor net energy efficiency, 1.3 or 1.4 times. We are looking at things that are 10 fold plus energy return. And we’re looking at dedicated energy crop that have no run off and are much more environmentally attractive.

We’re a bit concerned that much of the discussion about corn ethanol will poison the whole concept of biofuels before we really get a chance to put in place what we think is a much more environmentally attractive set of practices.

Q. There is the debate going on that for transportation there is the biofuels camp and the grid/electric camp. Im assuming you wouldn’t have taken the jobs unless you thought biofuels would play a major role in transportation.

A. I think that biofuels will have a big impact. The Secretary of Energy’s goal is 30% of transportation fuels by 2030. That is a modest goal, Im sure we can do that. And I’m pretty sure it will be non corn by that time. A more reasonable goal would be 50% of transportation fuels by 2030. But five years from now we will not have solved the problem. Both Silicon Valley and the investment community want it to be a lot faster than that.

Q. So you think the progress of cellulosic ethanol companies has been reasonable?

A. Yes, I find it exciting that, for example, the DOE gave $360 million to 6 companies. Those are at the small scale pseudo-commercial level. Im sure they will all lose money for quite awhile but the industry will learn a tremendous amount.

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