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Oil giant primes the biofuel pump with $500 million

February 02, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Oil giant BP will give $500 million to a partnership led by UC Berkeley to develop new biofuels and reduce environmental harm caused by the use of fossil fuels, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and company officials announced Thursday.

UC Berkeley will team up with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop fuel from plants, improve the extraction of oil from existing reserves and find ways to keep carbon from entering the atmosphere.

University and oil company officials said the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute is an unprecedented effort to find clean, sustainable sources of energy and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

"This is great news for California and great news for America," said Schwarzenegger, who had pledged $40 million in state funds if a California university received the award. "This is the first research laboratory dedicated to the development of alternative fuels. We will be the world center for biofuels research.

"We are not waiting for a clean energy revolution," added the governor, who signed legislation last year to curb the emission of greenhouse gases. "We are the leaders in that revolution."

BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, has agreed to provide $50 million a year for 10 years to the institute, an unusual partnership between the universities, the oil company and state and federal governments. As many as 50 BP employees will work at the two campuses.

Much of what the institute develops will be made available to the public, but BP will retain exclusive control over certain discoveries, said Robert C. Dynes, president of the University of California system. The institute will be governed by a board that will include university and oil company officials.

A building to house the institute will be built on UC land at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a renowned research facility managed by UC.

The University of Illinois, which is noted for its research in plant genetics, could receive as much as $100 million of the award. Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich joined Schwarzenegger and others in making the announcement.

Officials of both universities said they expect the institute to begin operating by June.

The Berkeley-Illinois partnership was chosen over four competing proposals, including bids from Cambridge University, UC San Diego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The proposal from UC Berkeley and its partners was selected in large part because these institutions have excellent track records of delivering 'big science' -- large and complex developments ... that can be deployed in the real world," said BP Group Chief Executive John Browne.

Steven Chu, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 and is director of the Lawrence Berkeley lab, said the institute would take a team approach with scientists from different disciplines collaborating in as many as 25 groups.

"Our new institute will combine the best qualities of individual genius in our faculty and staff with the capability to form teams that can rapidly explore bold approaches that are well beyond the reach of a single investigator or a single discipline," Chu said.

The institute will create the new discipline of "energy biosciences" and will offer instruction to undergraduate and graduate students in the hope of nurturing a new generation of experts in alternative fuels.

"It is my belief that we are reinventing the research university in this public-private partnership," Dynes said. "This place will be teeming with students."

Dynes noted that the institute will be part of a broader effort by the UC to develop alternative fuels from hydrogen, helium, wind and solar energy.

University officials were optimistic that the institute can find a sustainable, clean source of fuel to solve the energy crisis that threatens both the global climate and the political stability of the world. Some likened it to the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and others to the U.S.-Soviet space race.

"This is our generation's moon shot," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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