Our world is not lacking for Grand Challenges - that is, complex problems of great importance to society whose solutions require breakthroughs across multiple dimensions. I am sure that improving the productivity and quality of health care is in just about everyone's list. The effective management of our global, integrated, unpredictable economies and financial systems is probably going to be a newcomer to many Grand Challenge lists. But, most experts will likely agree that the search for clean, plentiful energy is the single biggest problem facing humanity and will be at the very top of Grand Challenge lists for the foreseeable future.
Why are breakthroughs in energy so critical? First of all, we face major challenges in finding reliable supplies of energy, and reducing the environmental impact of energy production and use. But, energy is also directly linked to some of the toughest problems we face in the 21st century, such as water, food, poverty, transportation, terrorism and war. Energy likewise plays the dominant role in determining the quality of our environment. It is a key factor in the quality of life for people around the world, arguably the single most important factor that impacts the prosperity of any society.
Tom Friedman, whose best-seller The World is Flat helped explain the forces of globalization to millions around the world, recently published Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How it Can Renew America. In his new book, as well as in his articles and Op Ed columns, Tom has been vigorously talking about the power of green, the incredible economic opportunities available to those working towards an ET - Energy Technology - revolution, a revolution every bit as transformative and disruptive as the IT revolution has been.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the ET revolution in action at the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley. In June of 2006, BP pledged $500M over ten years to establish a dedicated biosciences energy research laboratory attached to a major academic center, as well as to start a bio-fuels business for the production of new, cleaner energy. BP issued a request for proposals, and the subsequent competition was won by a partnership between the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
The EBI was launched in February of 2007. Later in the year, Chris Somerville, - professor in the department of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley, - was appointed EBI director, and Stephen Long, - professor of plant biology and crop sciences at the University of Illinois, - was appointed deputy director. Its multidisciplinary research programs "explore total-system solutions to global energy problems that include the sustainable production of cellulosic biofuels, enhanced biological carbon sequestration, bioprocessing of fossil fuels, biologically-enhanced petroleum recovery, and the social and economic impacts of transitioning to sustainable energy."
I visited the EBI as part of a review by BP's Technical Advisory Council, - of which I have been a member since 2003. Listening to their work, you very much sense the transformative, disruptive ET revolution that Tom Friedman is writing about. You sense the incredible innovations being unleashed by applying modern biological knowledge to the energy sector. Industry processes that have been around for a very long time - growing plants, refining fuels, enhanced oil recovery - are being transformed by this new biological knowledge. As is usually the case, the intersection of previously siloed disciplines – e.g., biology, genomics, chemistry, petroleum engineering, … - is where the most exciting new innovations are found.
A chief goal of the EBI is discovering plants that can produce more biomass - plant material from which biofuel is produced - per acre than the plants currently used for this purpose. "Though some biofuel types are now produced with corn and sugar cane, EBI scientists are trying to identify and ‘improve’ other plant species that can be used to manufacture biofuels on a global scale, with more efficiency and less waste. Researchers are examining the fuel-producing capabilities of varieties like switchgrass, miscanthus and other plants that can be grown in a sustainable fashion – meaning they won't harm the environment or require too much energy to harvest and store."
The University of Illinois, EBI's major partner, is one of the top institutions in the world conducting research on Miscanthus. Miscanthus, more specifically Miscantus Giganteus is one of the most promising new sources of biomass. It is a large, perennial, environmentally friendly grass that has produced greater yields than switchgrass, sugar cane and other crops. It has a large root system that captures nutrient from the soil and requires little care and energy to produce. Miscanthus will grow very nicely in areas not used for major food production, such as the Eastern half of the United States and the Southern regions in Brazil.
As befits an innovation with disruptive, global consequences, the EBI has a major research program on the environmental, social and economic dimensions of meeting an increasing portion of our energy needs through sustainable means.
"Researchers who participate in this program will study a range of social, economic and environmental issues relating to the creation of a biofuel industry. How much land globally is available for the production of biofuels? What might be the consequences of devoting vast amounts of land for raising crops used to produce biofuels? Will food production be affected? What impact would a dynamic biofuels market have on the environment?
These are just a few of the questions that will require thorough scientific scrutiny as we transition to a sustainable energy system. By providing answers to these questions, researchers will contribute a solid scientific basis that policymakers will be able to use as a guide when they devise policies that mitigate the possible negative impacts of biofuels."
The Energy Biosciences Institute and similar programs around the world are ushering a massive energy technology revolution. This is truly one of the most exciting and important research and innovation initiatives in the decades ahead.