June 26, 2007

Sandia to play key role in Bay Area-hosted DOE Bioscience Center

Joint BioEnergy Institute one of three bioenergy research centers selected

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman has announced today a partnership of three national laboratories — including Sandia National Laboratories — and three research universities in the San Francisco Bay Area has been chosen to host one of three bioenergy research centers.

The center will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through its Biological and Environmental Research Genomics: GTL research program in the Office of Science.

The new center led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will be known as the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and is expected to receive $125 million in DOE funding over its first five years.

The DOE JBEI’s other partners are Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the University of California (UC) campuses in Berkeley and Davis, and Stanford University. Plans call for the center to be headquartered in a leased building in the East Bay, central to all partners. Initial work will take place at the West Berkeley Biocenter on Potter Street in Berkeley.

“The DOE bioenergy research centers will provide the transformational science needed for bioenergy breakthroughs to advance President Bush’s goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012, and assist in reducing America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years,” Secretary Bodman said. “The collaborations of academic, corporate, and national laboratory researchers represented by these centers are truly impressive and I am very encouraged by the potential they hold for advancing America’s energy security.”

Research at the DOE JBEI will focus on biofuels — liquid fuels derived from the solar energy stored in plant biomass. Harnessing even a tiny fraction of the total solar energy available each year could meet most if not all of the nation’s annual transportation energy needs.

“Diversifying our energy supply is a critical priority for the nation. Achieving that goal will require new scientific breakthroughs and rapid translation of science into scalable technologies,” said Tom Hunter, president and director of Sandia National Laboratories. “This partnership will enable a synthesis of biosciences and engineering that will transform the nation’s biofuel research capabilities. With the Joint BioEnergy Institute, Sandia joins California’s extraordinary national laboratories and leading research universities as we move forward to set a new standard for renewable energy research.”

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory.

Sandia’s role in the center will build on the lab’s expertise in science-based engineering, computational science, and microsystems. Sandia’s capabilities in enzyme engineering, systems biology, membrane transport, protein expression, and hyperspectral imaging are expected to contribute significantly to the DOE JBEI mission. Sandia facilities, including the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications (MESA), and the Combustion Research Facility (CRF), will play leading roles. Current bioenergy-related research at Sandia expected to enhance DOE JBEI efforts include the examination of the photosynthetic properties of various plants and microbes; analysis of extremophile enzymes; and related engineering methods that can facilitate the processing of cellulosic biomass.

Potential of biofuels

Scientific studies have consistently ranked biofuels among the top candidates for meeting large-scale energy needs, particularly in the transportation sector. However, the commercial-scale production of clean, efficient, cost-effective biofuels will require technology-transforming scientific breakthroughs.

Researchers at the DOE JBEI intend to meet this challenge through the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into biofuels. Lignocellulose, the most abundant organic material on the planet, is a mix of complex sugars and lignin that gives strength and structure to plant cell walls. By extracting simple fermentable sugars from lignocellulose and producing biofuels from them, the potential of the most energy-efficient and environmentally benign fuel crops can be realized.

The DOE JBEI approach

Researchers will tackle key scientific problems that currently hinder the cost-effective conversion of lignocellulose into biofuels and other important chemicals. They will also develop the tools and infrastructure to accelerate future biofuel research and production efforts, and help transition new technologies into the commercial sector. The goal of the center is to achieve measurable success within the next five years.

The organization of the center will feature four interdependent science and technology divisions: Feedstocks, aimed at improving plants that serve as the raw materials for ethanol and the next generation of biofuels; Deconstruction, aimed at investigating the molecular mechanisms behind the breakdown of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars; Fuels Synthesis, in which microbes that can efficiently convert sugar into biofuels will be engineered; and Cross-Cutting Technologies, which will be dedicated to the development and optimization of enabling technologies that support and integrate DOE JBEI research.

In addition to maintaining an Industry Partnership Program, research at the center will be guided by an Industry Advisory Board whose membership will come from key sectors, including feedstocks, enzymes, fuels production, biotechnology, genetics, and chemistry.

The partnership

Each of the member institutes of the DOE JBEI brings unique capabilities to the partnership. The national laboratory partners operate state-of-the-art scientific instrumentation and research facilities, such as the Molecular Foundry, the Advanced Light Source and the National Center for Electron Microscopy at Berkeley Lab; the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, the Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications project, and the Combustion Research Facility at Sandia; and the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and the MicroArray Center at LLNL.

In addition, Berkeley Lab and LLNL are part of the five-national-laboratory partnership that operates DOE’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI), which carries out sequencing projects that accelerate research in energy, agriculture, and carbon sequestration.

A surfeit of computational capabilities is also provided through Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and the Red Storm Supercomputer at Sandia.

The DOE JBEI partner institutions have been home to Nobel Laureates and a profusion of award-winning scientists and engineers. UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Berkeley Lab, is home to the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC); faculty at the UC Davis Genome Center and the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering study key issues at the forefront of microbial and plant biology; and Stanford is the host to the Department of Plant Biology of the Carnegie Institution.

In addition to CEO Jay Keasling of Berkeley Lab, who is also vice president for Fuels Synthesis, other members of the DOE JBEI leadership team include Harvey Blanch, Berkeley Lab/UC Berkeley, Chief Science and Technology Officer; Wolf Frommer, Stanford University, VP Feedstocks; Blake Simmons, Sandia, VP Deconstruction; Paul Adams, Berkeley Lab, VP Technology; and Kathe Andrews-Cramer, Sandia, VP Strategic Integration.

The other two DOE Bionergy Research Centers are the DOE BioEnergy Research Center, led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, in close collaboration with Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Mike Janes,, (925) 294-2447