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Chevron fuels $25M alternative energy endeavor

By Kat Kerlin on September 22, 2006 in University News

Chevron Corp. will fund up to $25 million in research at UC Davis in the next five years to develop affordable, renewable transportation fuels from farm and forest residues, urban wastes and crops grown specifically for energy.

The researchers will address the vast range of variables — from genetics to thermochemical reactions to economics — that will be involved if many of our cars and trucks are to be powered in the future by something other than gasoline and diesel fuel.

Such energy alternatives are needed to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil supplies and to reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases linked to global climate change.

Chevron's interest in next-generation bio-fuels is a very good fit with UC Davis' expertise in alternative fuels and transportation systems, said UC Davis Vice Chancellor for Research Barry Klein.

"UC Davis already has top research and teaching programs on hydrogen and biofuels, as well as electric and gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, and power generation from biomass. We also have strong programs in converting food-processing wastes and agricultural residues to energy," Klein continued.

"Adding Chevron's support for biofuel studies to the picture complements our present efforts and puts us all closer to our shared goal of driving on clean, affordable energy."

Chevron officials said the company's new investment in advanced biofuels research is the logical next step in its pursuit of commercially viable technologies across the energy spectrum. Since 2000, Chevron has spent more than $1.5 billion on renewable energy projects and on delivering energy efficiency solutions. Focus areas include geothermal, hydrogen, biofuels, advanced batteries, and wind and solar energy.

In June, Chevron pledged up to $12 million over the next five years to the Georgia Institute of Technology, for research into alternative fuels.

"We think it's important to pursue research that could accelerate the use of biofuels since we believe they may play an integral role in diversifying the world's energy sources. Developing next-generation processing technology will help broaden the choice of feedstocks including cellulosic materials," said Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer, Chevron Corp.

California's huge agricultural industry could be a key source of the raw material for the new biofuels, said Rick Zalesky, vice president of biofuels and hydrogen for Chevron Technology Ventures, a Chevron Corp. subsidiary. "Once developed, next-generation processing technology will allow locally grown biomass to be harvested, processed into transportation fuels and distributed to consumers."

Daniel Sperling, director of UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies and an international authority on R&D in advanced transportation fuels and fuel technology, said campus and Chevron leaders had been talking for two years about making a large commitment to biofuels research.

In fact, UC Davis already has a lot going on in the field. Since 2005, the campus has received more than $7 million in funding and funding commitments for studies by the more than 100 scientists and administrators in seven major campus units that comprise the UC Davis Bioenergy Research Group.

UC Davis Professor Bryan Jenkins, an expert in converting biomass to energy, leads the Bioenergy Research Group. He also directs the California Biomass Collaborative, a mostly state-funded organization that helps coordinate industry, government, academic and environmental groups' work on biomass management and use in California. The collaborative is currently working on a roadmap for sustainable biomass management and development in the state.

The Biomass Collaborative and another UC Davis-based, statewide program both foster the spread of information about bioenergy. The California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research, which has research programs in bioconversion for fuels and chemicals, is directed by Sharon Shoemaker, an expert in the roles of microorganisms and enzymes in biomass conversion.

About biofuels

Most of the fuels we use to power our cars, trucks, trains, ships and airplanes today are derived from oil pumped from deep within the earth. These petroleum fuels are fossil fuels — they are finite in supply. Along with other fossil fuels, such as coal, they also are the principal source of greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change.

"Biofuels, if made in sustainable ways, are renewable and greatly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases," Jenkins said.

The most familiar biofuel is ethanol, made mostly from corn or sugar cane, but also from a number of other starch and sugar sources. Midwest corn is the primary source of ethanol in the U.S. The fuel blend called E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is now being made available in many states. (In California, there are more than 300,000 so-called flex-fuel vehicles that were designed to use E85, but because the E85 distribution system has not developed as fast as the vehicle fleet, most are operating on gasoline.)

Jenkins said Californians already drive on a fuel blend that is about 95 percent gasoline and 5 percent ethanol (made mostly from corn grain and included as an oxygenate).

Another biofuel in use is biodiesel, a product made by reacting vegetable oils or animal fats with alcohols such as methanol and ethanol. In the U.S., soybeans from the Midwest are a major source of biodiesel.

UC Davis researchers hope to take biofuels beyond those conventional fuel feedstocks to the much larger energy source of "lignocellulosic materials" — the matter that makes up plant stems, leaves, trunks and branches.

Public and private funds are flowing to this new field of research.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who visited UC Davis' new Energy Efficiency Center last spring and its hydrogen fuel cells program in 2004) has made biofuels a cornerstone of his Executive Order S-06-06 released last April.

Schwarzenegger ordered that by 2010, we should produce 20 percent of our biofuels within the state, increasing to a 40 percent share by 2020 and 75 percent by 2050. The state currently produces less than 5 percent, he has said.

Media contact(s)

Kat Kerlin, Research news (emphasis on environmental sciences), (530) 752-7704,