Thursday, February 28, 2008

UC research to focus on biofuel from plants

UC research to focus on biofuel from plants
Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Harnessing the sun through solar panels is a great idea in principle, but harvesting stored solar energy from plants is a more promising and economical approach to help meet global energy needs, a UC Berkeley biosciences expert said Wednesday.

Former Stanford biologist Chris Somerville, who recently moved to the Berkeley campus to head the new Energy Biosciences Institute funded with half a billion dollars from BP, said the potential of photovoltaic technology for meeting the world's rapidly growing energy needs hasn't panned out in the 87 years since Einstein won the Nobel Prize for discovering the photoelectric effect.

A better bet, Somerville told a packed audience on campus, is to lay microscopic siege to the Earth's abundant plant cells, break down their walls and extract their sugars to produce alcohol for fuel.

It was the second public bruising of solar panels by a prominent UC Berkeley researcher within a few days.

Last week, the campus released a report by energy expert Severin Borenstein saying the costs of today's solar panels far outweigh the benefits. He said the money now spent on putting photovoltaic panels on homes and businesses would be better spent on research into improving them.

Somerville agreed that "direct solar" is too expensive.

"I certainly think direct solar would be better if the cost could be brought down," he said in a lecture explaining why Berkeley and its academic partners, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are joining with BP to fashion biological keys for unlocking solar energy stored in plants.

Meeting U.S. energy needs would require 26,000 square kilometers of solar panels operating at their current efficiency of 15 to 20 percent, an unlikely prospect given that only about 4 square kilometers of photovoltaic panels have been built in the world, he said.

The institute will not focus on the main method of biofuel production in the United States today - which is fermentation of corn mash to produce ethanol, known also to backwoods distillers as moonshine - but on second- and third-generation biofuels that don't have the same environmentally damaging effects as heavy reliance on corn, Somerville said.

By pioneering ways to break down cell fibers, the institute's researchers hope to be able to convert any plant material - including fallen trees, lawn trimmings, food waste and especially fast-growing dense plants like miscanthus - into practical sources of biofuel. See article at

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This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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