JBEI looks at replacing fossil fuels


Everyday, 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 which is the biggest contributor to global warming.

Inside an Emeryville lab, researchers are plying for answers to America's fossil fuel dependency. This is the Joint BioEnergy Lab Institute, or JBEI for short.

"I think that JBEI has a real chance at addressing and solving some of these huge problems," says Jay Keasling, from the Joint BioEnergy Institute.

The lab opened in March 2008 and is funded by a five-year, $134 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The project has the primary goal to turn agricultural waste into fuel.

"We have roughly 1.3 billion tons of biomass every year that's just lying in fields, lying in landfills, that we are just not doing anything with and we have this huge potential. If you look at the energy in that mass of waste material, it's roughly equivalent to the energy we import every year as petroleum, but you have to convert it," says Keasling.

The goal of JBEI is to achieve measurable success within the next five years.

"There is a sense of urgency, there is a real national need," says Keasling.

JBEI is made up of six partner institutions. Led by the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the group includes the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis, the Lawrence Livermore Lab and Sandia National Laboratories, and the Carnegie Institution of Science.

"Let's not kid ourselves, the ultimate goal here is to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions derived from fossil fuels, as well as decrease our dependence on foreign oil," says Blake Simmons.

Simmons leads a team of scientists at Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore for JBEI. They are scavenging the environment for naturally occurring enzymes best suited to break down biomass into fuel.

"We are doing a lot of fundamental research into looking at advance enzymes and advance organisms that can more efficiently assist in the degradation of biomass into biofuels," says Simmons.

"Enzyme engineering, as a task, is basically trying to engineer and improve the characteristics of enzimes so that they are most suitable to what you want to do," says Rajat Sapra, a scientist.

Finding the one that best turns agricultural waste into fuel hasn't happened yet, but the scientist associated with JBEI are convinced it's out there.

Regardless, don't expect the gas at the pump to be replaced in the next couple of years, whatever is developed here tomorrow, likely won't be widely seen until far off in the future.

"We have the opportunity to do research that will lead to transportation fuels that you can put in your automobile today, that we can put into jet engines, that we can use to power our economy going forward into our children's and grandchildren's generations," says Keasling.

Joint BioEnergy Institute: www.jbei.org

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This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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