Energy Innovation at the Joint BioEnergy Institute

Blake Simmons


Today, carbon-rich fossil fuels, primarily oil, coal and natural gas, provide 85% of the energy consumed in the United States. Fossil fuel use increases CO2 emissions, increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases and raising the risk of global warming. The high energy content of liquid hydrocarbon fuels makes them the preferred energy source for all modes of transportation. In the US alone, transportation consumes around 13.8 million barrels of oil per day and generates over 0.5 gigatons of carbon per year. This has spurred research into alternative, non-fossil energy sources. Among the options (nuclear, concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass), only biomass has the potential to provide a high-energy-content transportation fuel. Biomass is renewable resource that is carbon-neutral.

Currently, biofuels such as ethanol are produced largely from grains, but there is a large, untapped resource (estimated at more than a billion tons per year) of plant biomass that could be utilized as a renewable, domestic source of liquid fuels. Well-established processes convert the starch content of the grain into sugars that can be fermented to ethanol. Plant-derived biomass contains cellulose, which is more difficult to convert to sugars. The development of cost-effective and energy-efficient processes to transform cellulose in biomass into fuels is hampered by significant roadblocks, including the lack of specifically developed energy crops, the difficulty in separating biomass components, low activity of enzymes used to deconstruct biomass, and the inhibitory effect of fuels and processing byproducts on organisms responsible for producing fuels from biomass monomers.

The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) is one of three US Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers that will address these roadblocks in biofuels production. JBEI draws on the expertise and capabilities of three national laboratories (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)), two leading US universities (University of California campuses at Berkeley (UCB) and Davis (UCD)), and a foundation (Carnegie Institute of Washington at Stanford University) to develop the scientific and technological base needed to convert the energy stored in cellulose into transportation fuels and commodity chemicals. Established scientists from the participating organizations are leading teams of researchers to solve the key scientific problems and develop the tools and infrastructure that will enable other researchers and companies to rapidly develop new biofuels and scale production to meet US transportation needs, and to develop and rapidly transition new technologies to the commercial sector.