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Department of Energy Renews Joint BioEnergy Institute for Another Five Years

Reaffirming the Obama administration’s commitment to the development of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel energy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced a five-year renewal of funding for the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a Bay Area multi-institutional scientific partnership.

Reaffirming the Obama administration’s commitment to the development of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel energy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced a five-year renewal of funding for the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a Bay Area multi-institutional scientific partnership. Under the renewal, JBEI will be funded at the rate of $25 million annually through 2018.

JBEI is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs) established by DOE’s Office of Science in 2007 on the basis of a nationwide competition to accelerate fundamental research breakthroughs for the development of advanced, next-generation biofuels. Funded at $125 million for its first five-year period, JBEI was officially dedicated on December 2, 2008 at its state-of-the-art laboratory facility in Emeryville. Today the JBEI partnership, which is led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), includes the Sandia National Laboratories, the University of California (UC) campuses of Berkeley and Davis, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “Developing the next generation of American biofuels will enhance our national energy security, expand the domestic biofuels industry, and produce new clean energy jobs. It will help America’s farmers and create vast new opportunities for wealth creation in rural communities. By investing in innovative approaches and technologies at our Bioenergy Research Centers, we can continue to move the biofuels industry forward and grow our economy while reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”

Jay Keasling, an internationally recognized leader in biofuels research who holds joint positions with Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, is the CEO of JBEI, which was organized like a start-up company and is the only BRC that houses most of its researchers in one facility.

“JBEI was designed to be nimble and flexible enough to focus and refocus its research quickly, efficiently and effectively,” Keasling said. “We’re grateful for DOE’s recognition that this strategy continues to be a worthy investment for moving the nation toward a sustainable energy future.”

The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) is a DOE-funded, multi-institutional partnership for advanced biofuels research headquartered in Emeryville, CA. Photo credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab

The decision to renew the funding for all three BRCs was made following strongly positive evaluations of their respective performances by outside peer review teams. Each BRC has been subjected to rigorous outside evaluation and annual reviews by independent peer review teams. The other two BRCs are the BioEnergy Research Center (BESC) led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University. In five years of operation, the three BRCs have produced more than 1,100 peer-reviewed publications and over 400 invention disclosures and/or patent applications.

Said Berkeley Lab director Paul Alivisatos, “Berkeley Lab is proud of its leadership role in JBEI and proud of what the partnership has achieved in its first five years. We look forward to the continued success of JBEI during the next five years.”

Advanced biofuels made from the lignocellulosic biomass of grasses, other non-food crops and agricultural waste have the potential to replace fossil fuels that are responsible for the annual release of nearly 9 billion metric tons of excess carbon into the atmosphere. A recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) stressed the need for advanced biofuels if the nation is to significantly reduce its petroleum consumption in the coming decades. However, the NRC report also noted that formidable scientific and technological challenges must be overcome to make advanced biofuels cost-effective and widely available. Such challenges are being addressed by researchers at JBEI and the other BRCs.

Many of JBEI’s numerous successes during its first five years of operation stemmed from its pioneering work in synthetic biology. Prominent achievements include the engineering of the first strains of Escherichia coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel without any help from enzyme additives.

“Our goal at JBEI has been to put as much chemistry as we can into microbes,” Keasling said at the time this research was reported. “For advanced biofuels this requires a microbe with pathways for hydrocarbon production and the biomass-degrading capacity to secrete enzymes that efficiently hydrolyze cellulose and hemicellulose.”

Synthetic biology techniques have also been used to engineer plants to produce more cellulose, less hemicellulose, and lignin that is more easily digested to extract the sugar-containing cellulose and hemicellulose. Together, these advances will increase sugar yields from energy crops, thereby helping to reduce the cost of fuels produced from such sugars.

JBEI researchers have also been at the forefront in finding ways to pre-treat biomass for more efficient conversion into fuels, particularly in the use of ionic liquids – salts that are liquids rather than crystals at room temperature. Among other achievements, JBEI researchers have developed new imaging techniques for accurately and quickly assessing the performances of different ionic liquids; demonstrated the use of an ionic liquid for effectively pre-treating blends of multiple different feedstocks; and identified a tropical rainforest microbe that can endure relatively high concentrations of ionic liquids.

“The renewal of JBEI’s five-year mission acknowledges the significant progress we’re making towards the development of advanced biofuels,” Keasling said.

A DOE Office of Science news release on the renewal of funding for the three BRCs can be read here.