Berkeley lab to receive almost $14 million in Department of Energy grants

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will be receiving almost $14 million in grant money from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy division of the U.S. Department of Energy, according to an announcement released Thursday.

Out of the 60 projects the division is funding, the Berkeley lab will conduct three separate projects, some in conjunction with other organizations. In addition, UC Berkeley will contribute to a project led by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station.

One of the lab’s projects, led by senior staff scientist Christer Jansson, will receive about $4.9 million in funding to produce biofuels.  According to Jansson, the goal is to produce high-density liquid hydrocarbons by transferring genes from green algae and cyanobacteria to tobacco plants.  Jansson said that one of the purposes of the project “is to enhance the photosynthesis in the plants so that we get large amounts of these biofuel molecules.”

He added that his team will use tobacco plants for several reasons, including the fact that they grow well, are a nonfood crop and are easy to genetically engineer.

Blake Simmons, vice president of deconstruction at the lab’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, and CEO of the institute Jay Keasling will work on another project led by the University of Florida. The project will receive about $6.4 million from the energy department, also for the purpose of increasing biofuel production. Researchers will use synthetic biology tools to increase the amount of turpentine — a natural biofuel — in pine trees.

“What we are trying to do is take the native metabolism and increase its efficiency so that they become a viable source for biofuels,” Simmons said.

He added that this type of biofuel could be ready for use in fuel systems with very little post-processing.

“If it could be commercially viable, it has significant potential,” Simmons said.

Mary Ann Piette, research director of the Demand Response Research Center, and David Watson, program manager of the Environmental Energy Technology Division of the Berkeley lab, will receive approximately $3.5 million to work with researchers from Columbia University and AutoGrid Inc. to develop a system that will use an algorithm to send personalized signals to electricity customers, which will reduce electricity costs for consumers.

Watson said the system is designed to be compatible with wind and solar energy. Additionally, the system could reduce the cost of demand response programs — which manage customer electricity consumption in response to supply conditions — by 90 percent.

UC Berkeley scientists will also be involved in a project led by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station that has similar goals to those of Piette’s and Watson’s project, aiming to reduce blackouts, which could save billions of dollars a year.