Energy Biosciences Institute


EBI at a glance

A brief biography of the Energy Biosciences Institute

The Energy Biosciences Institute was formed, following an international competition invited by the global energy company BP, in late 2007 and was funded for 10 years and $500 million ($350 million for the public institutions). The quest so far involves two primary areas of bioenergy development – cellulosic fuels (derived from non-food plants) and fossil fuel microbiology. Other applications of biological knowledge to energy solutions, such as biolubricants and biosequestration, may follow. The challenges are huge, but the resources to meet them are vast – expertise and the finest research facilities at three of the world’s most distinguished centers of learning and knowledge, plus the corporate know-how of an experienced international energy company.

The Research

More than 75 programs and projects have already been funded by the EBI within a broad spectrum of issues both technical and social. Up to 10 workshops a year identify opportunities and priority targets. Co-location of research groups facilitates horizontal integration, a factor that drove the design of the new Energy Biosciences Building.

On the processing side, the EBI’s focus has been on enabling feedstock availability – hardier plants, better yields, more efficient harvest and storage – and reducing the costs of conversion. Unless the capital costs are reduced, cellulosic biofuels will not be able to compete with conventional fossil fuels in the market. That means improving pretreatment procedures, finding more durable and affordable catalysts to break down lignocellulose to sugars to fuels, and developing microorganisms that use all sugars efficiently.

Since 2007, more than 1,000 researchers, including postdoctoral scientists and students, have been engaged in EBI investigations. They have recorded more than 1,200 disclosures (public notices by researchers about their work) and in 2011 alone published more than 400 academic posters and journal papers.

Why Cellulosic Biofuels?

Ethanol is currently the transportation biofuel of choice worldwide, derived primarily from corn and sugarcane. The EBI believes that food and fuel shouldn’t be an either-or proposition, so it is concentrating on the sugar-rich properties of non-edible plants, like grasses, trees, and energy cane. What is not simple is trying to undo what nature has perfected over millions of years – deconstructing the rigid and resistant parts of the plant’s infrastructure and breaking down cellulose and hemicellulose, the primary components of plant cells, into their component parts. Remove the complex carbohydrates, and then rearrange the elements to form a combustible fluid that will run our cars and light-duty trucks.

The challenge doesn’t stop there. The EBI wants to know what social, economic and environmental impacts such practices will have on a community, and a nation. Data collection and modeling are being used to compile a complete analysis of the entire life cycle of a biofuel, from field to tank. It’s not enough to make a biofuel; one has to make and use it responsibly. Of the entire EBI investment in bioenergy research, 20 percent is devoted to biofuels’ implications on society and the environment. And that sets this institute apart from all comparable centers in the field.


General research directions are guided by the EBI’s Governance Board, comprised of eight voting members – four appointed by UC Berkeley and four by BP. Equal representation on the Governance Board encourages collaborative decision-making and is reflective of the spirit of cooperation that epitomizes the EBI endeavor.

Specific research for the academic component of the EBI is selected by its Executive Committee and vetted by the Governance Board. Research projects are defined and developed by university faculty. The 13-member Executive Committee, with representation by all four EBI partners, reviews and recommends the yearly research programs and develops operating policies and practices.

Calls for proposal submissions from the partner institutions are issued periodically, soliciting ideas for advanced studies within the institute’s five primary fields or for new research in the broader area of bioenergy. National and international experts peer-review the proposals and provide valuable input for the Executive Committee to make informed decisions for funding.

Serving Mother Earth

The real motivator for all of this investment of time and talent is the planet, experiencing the effects of unprecedented climate change resulting in large part from the growing proliferation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels for its energy needs, of which transportation fuel is an integral part, will go a long way toward reversing the negative environmental trend. This is what drives the commitment of the EBI and its members to find sustainable, economically viable, environmentally responsible options for the next generations’ energy needs.

EBI By the Numbers

Annual Budget for the Energy Biosciences Institute:

  • Academic Partners: $35 milliion
  • $25 million for direct research
  • $5 million for research support
  • $5 million for facilities and infrastructure
  • BP: $15 million

Number of Programs and Projects Funded (as of December 31, 2011):

  • Programs: 25
  • Projects:   59

Scientific Publications/Presentations  (as of December 31, 2011):

  • Submitted Journal Articles:

2011: 197

2010: 156

2009: 73

2008: 7


  • Posters and Meeting Abstracts:

2011: 324

2010: 222

2009: 204

2008: 67

Public Disclosures (as of December 31, 2011): 1,258

Staffing (2011 Average):

127 Principal Investigators, Co-PIs, Faculty

215 Students (graduate and undergraduate)

174 Postdocs, Staff Scientists, Other Researchers

48   Administration and Support

564 Total

The Renewable Fuel Standard calls for the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be commercialized by 2022. This is estimated to account for about 11.3% of all liquid fuel consumption. Of this, the EPA will require 21 billion gallons from advanced biofuels, 16 billion gallons from cellulosic biofuel, and at least one billion gallons of biomass-based diesel. The Energy Biosciences Institute hopes to be involved in a renewable energy solution through the study of all aspects of biofuel production, from feedstock growth to societal impact.

Source: Ethanol and Biodiesel: the Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, Kirk R. Berge; Monthly Energy Review, June 2012, U.S. Energy Information Administration

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The Energy Biosciences Institute is supported by a $500-million, 10-year award from BP. It is a unique collaboration between four research partners: the University of California, Berkeley; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and BP.

The University of California at Berkeley is consistently ranked highest among the world’s public institutions for its achievements in teaching and research. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a similar land-grant institution, has gained international esteem in multiple fields, not the least of which is agriculture. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, considered by many the jewel of the U.S. Department of Energy’s fundamental science research laboratories, brings its prestige and legacy of confronting the most difficult scientific challenges of our time. And the funding agency BP, a $300 billion multi-national corporation with 80,000 employees, brings its world leadership and expertise in fuels for transportation, energy for heat and light, retail services and petrochemical products to the consortium.

The full spectrum of academic knowledge is in one place, the opportunity to integrate and syndicate problems across the disciplines. The problems are complex and require a holistic approach to their resolution – it is chemists working with biologists, engineers working with bench scientists, economists working with environmental experts, seeing all aspects of the problem in a coherent way. This is the uniqueness of the EBI.

Another defining aspect of the EBI is its inclusion of a major international energy company as a sort of reality litmus test. BP, the agency that funds the EBI, co-locates its scientists and engineers with the academic researchers. With their extensive knowledge of the energy sector and a firm grasp of the commercial benchmarks that a successful industry requires, BP personnel are ideal partners to ground the EBI’s pursuits in reality.


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