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East Bay lab searches for gas alternative

May 1, 2013 9:09:21 PM PDT
Today's higher gas prices can really pinch the monthly budget. But what if there was a cheaper alternative that could be produced on the scale of oil and be better for the environment? That's just what Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville is working on.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of cars crowd Bay Area streets and highways. For every gallon of gas burned, nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the environment. Carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to global warming.

"Our job here at JBEI is not to produce fuels, but to actually develop the science that companies will then license and turn into fuels," said Jay Keasling, the executive director of the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville.

JBEI is looking for a greener solution to fossil fuel. It is made up of six partner institutions led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The group includes the UC campuses at Berkeley and Davis, the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, and the Carnegie Institution of Science. ABC7 News first told you about the lab shortly after it opened in 2008. It was funded by five year, $134 million grant from Department of Energy and given five years to achieve measurable success.

Blake Simmons has been there since the start. He oversees some of the work at the institute.

"Compared to 2008 we are much closer to seeing these advanced bio fuels come to the marketplace," he said.

Simmons says scientists have found good alternatives to fossil fuels, including ways to maximize the amount of fuel they can get from plants.

"We've certainly developed techniques and we've patented them on how to do that," he said.

The lab has also found cheaper ways to break down green waste into the sugar that will ultimately become fuel.

"We're able to tear apart those plants and extract those sugars more readily. We've got microbes that will synthesize as fuels from those sugars, fuels that can be dropped in to gasoline, diesel or jet fuel," said Keasling.

But how do they make it on the scale of large refineries and make them it affordable?

"That is the one critical bottleneck that we are trying to address at JBEI," added Simmons.

One floor below the lab, scientists are hoping to find answers. They call it the Advance Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit. It is a miniature version of a massive refinery.

"What we do here is exactly what was done 150 years ago for oil," Lab Manager Julio Baez said.

Not only are they looking for ways to better process bio fuels, they are looking closely at the byproducts as well.

"When oil was discovered, we realized there are lot of very valuable compounds in oil that could be fractionated and recover," said Baez.

The processor opened in 2011, and was funded by a $20 million grant from the Department of Energy. While the processor perfects a method for refining bio-fuel scientists upstairs at JBEI are still working to make a more affordable fuel. Currently the lab can produce tank ready fuel for about the same price as a barrel of oil. The big difference? No greenhouse gases.

"There's still a lot of research to be done on making them more affordable and making plants be better bio energy crops but we've made a lot of progress," said Keasling.

The federal government apparently agrees. It has given the lab another five years and $125 million to continue their work.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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