Plants: The Fuel Of The Future? Researchers in Berkeley, Calif., are working on new technologies to convert plant cellulose into a fuel that could directly replace diesel and gasoline. But even if they figure out the recipe, there are still obstacles to competing with fossil fuels.
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Plants: The Fuel Of The Future?

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Plants: The Fuel Of The Future?

Plants: The Fuel Of The Future?

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Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are looking for cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, and they're doing it with funding from an oil company. One of the more promising options would be to make fuels from plant material called cellulose. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, creating the product is just the first step in a lengthy process of developing a new industry.

RICHARD HARRIS: Berkeley's image is that of a progressive ivory tower. So it should come as no surprise that when researchers here set out to create a new industry, they wanted to make sure that it's green and socially responsible.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER SOMERVILLE (Director, Energy Biosciences Institute, University of California, Berkeley): Here you can see the sweep of the lab.

HARRIS: The new Energy Biosciences Institute is trying to make at least part of our economy run on fuel from vegetation. The institute has taken over a lab building that was once used to answer the pure scientific question of how plants covert carbon dioxide into chemical energy. Now Christopher Somerville and his colleagues hope to exploit that chemical energy.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: The best way to think about it is if you hold a sheet of paper in your hand, that's essentially pure cellulose.

HARRIS: And cellulose is really nothing more than sugar molecules, glucose, all linked together with indigestible chemical bonds.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: It's the principal fuel of all life on the planet actually, glucose.

HARRIS: The challenge is to liberate all that energy-rich glucose from the cellulose. If it can be converted to simple sugar, it can either be fed to yeast, which will turn it into ethanol, or it can be converted chemically into liquid fuels that could directly replace diesel and gasoline. The labs to figure out how to do this are still a work in progress.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: We're still unpacking crates.

Unidentified Man: Your guess is as good as mine...

HARRIS: On this day, technicians are assembling state-of-the-art gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, and fermentation vessels to be used by a small army of graduate students.

Unidentified Man: This started about here...

HARRIS: The goal of converting plant cellulose into fuel could transform our economy with a less-damaging alternative to fossil fuels. This cellulosic fuel is relatively clean because the plants that it comes from actually get their carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so carbon cycles from the exhaust pipe into the air, back to the plants, and then to the fuel again. Producing fuel is just one step, and Somerville says he doesn't think that's going to be the hard part.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: At least 20 companies think that the technology is good enough. So when I say that no breakthroughs are necessary, I mean, this is not like fusion, for example, where, you know, it really doesn't work. This is something that works and just needs to work a bit better in order to make it really compete with fossil fuels.

HARRIS: We head downstairs to get a flavor for the scope of this lab.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Dr. SOMERVILLE: These are the instruments that we use to actually grind up the biomass.

HARRIS: Like a very fancy blender.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: Like a very fancy blender, yeah. OK.

(Soundbite of grinding)

HARRIS: Somerville's institute is trying to develop not just a fuel, but an entire industry. And one key question is what starting ingredients to use. Many millions of acres of land would need to be planted with something if biofuels live up to their potential and replace a large fraction of gasoline in the coming decades. Somerville reaches into a cardboard box full of one prime candidate.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: And this is miscanthus. It's one of our favorites. You can see it looks like - sort of like - a little bit like bamboo in a way.

HARRIS: Big straw.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: Or big straw, I guess that'd be the - that's a better way of saying it, yeah.

HARRIS: As far as he knows, it has no common name.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: It's native to Southeast Asia, so it's been used in Japan and China for a thousand years for thatching and also for making paper. It's a relative of sugar cane, actually. We still have a lot of questions about exactly what the best species are. In fact there's many species that are going to be equally interesting for us. Well, we like this one because we get about almost 20 dried tons per year per acre with no fertilizer, no irrigation, no agrichemicals.

HARRIS: Somerville says we need to find a crop that will produce fuel without displacing food crops. That's where corn-based ethanol is failing and why corn is not on the menu here in Berkeley. But even nonfood plants like miscanthus could be bad news if farmers decided to plant it instead of food or to cut down a rainforest to grow it.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: We're only interested in it, frankly, if it can be environmentally positive and socially positive. So as we proceed with the technical innovation, we want to make sure that we understand these other dimensions, so that we can make appropriate choices, including one possible choice is that we shouldn't do this.

HARRIS: That's something the sponsor of this research might not want to hear. That's because this lab is funded by one of the world's largest oil companies, BP. They've committed $500 million over 10 years. At first blush, it seems strange that they're putting this technology to the test on one of the most progressive campuses in the country. But BP Vice President Paul Willems says the choice is deliberate. His office is just upstairs from Chris Somerville's.

Dr. PAUL WILLEMS (Technology Vice President for Energy Biosciences, BP): If biofuels is going to become a big part of our company in the long run, then our view is that the only way that can be the case is that if biofuels are done in a sustainable way that, you know, clearly is good for greenhouse gas and climate change, but is also good for the environment and land use and all that sort of stuff.

Dr. SOMERVILLE: It also implies that you have to be prepared to - if the people here at Berkeley say, ooh, these are really insurmountable environmental problems - you ignore that at your peril.

Dr. WILLEMS: Well, yeah, that would be a foolish thing to do as a company basically, right. So we don't want to be building a big part of our company on shaky foundation.

HARRIS: Assuming all those issues can be resolved, the blueprint for a biofuels industry is still not complete. The final piece will have to be government policies and regulations that create incentives for clean fuels. Willems says you might not think companies would actually want more regulation.

Dr. WILLEMS: But I think, generally, business is very much in favor of a regulatory environment that actually is predictable. People don't like a regulatory environment which is, you know, on the left one day and on the right the next day, and just flip-flops back and forth, because it doesn't provide a context in which you can make, you know, 20 and 30-year investments.

HARRIS: Governments need to create that context by committing in the long run to cleaner energy sources and then sticking with that plan over the course of dozens of election cycles, not an easy task. Berkeley Professor Dan Kammen, who helped found the institute, says the long-term government policy should try to resolve two problems at once, providing energy while taking steps to slow climate change.

Dr. DANIEL KAMMEN (Professor, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley; Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory): Certainly, the ability to reduce carbon emissions has got to be front and center on that list.

HARRIS: Kammen is not convinced that cellulose-based biofuels will be the answer. But he says as long as we articulate our goals correctly and ramp up the funding for the research, he says people will come up with recipes for fuels that will move us around and that aren't too hard on our planet. Richard Harris, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can see photos about this research project at our Web site,

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