State to reimburse UC $30 million for Berkeley Lab research facility construction

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The state of California will refund $30 million to the UC for the construction of a new UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory solar energy research facility.

Plans to build the Solar Energy Research Center (SERC) building were first submitted to the UC Board of Regents in November 2006 and were accepted in September 2009 after revisions were made. According to the proposal, the building — located at the Berkeley Lab — will be three stories tall and offer about 40,000 square feet of space. Consistent with its green research agenda, the facility is designed with a focus on sustainability and efficiency, using renewable and recyclable materials and maximizing natural light.

Construction is expected to begin this summer, according to UC spokesperson Brooke Converse. Berkeley Lab senior scientist Heinz Frei said the SERC building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The SERC project was supposed to be funded by the state, but due to tough economic times, the university will instead fund the project by selling $30 million in bonds to investors, Converse said. The state will fully reimburse the university for the construction phase of the project as well as any financing costs incurred by the bond sales, according to the state’s final budget package.

At the SERC building, researchers will be focusing on developing an artificial photosynthesis process, according to Frei. Researchers hope to model photosynthesis with synthetic materials in order to create renewable transportation fuel.

“While there are many similarities with natural photosynthesis, and (natural photosynthesis) is a marvelous guide for design principles, an artificial photosystem works on nonarable land and can be more efficient,” Frei said.

In Downtown Berkeley, the campus is building another alternative-energy research facility, the Energy Biosciences Building. According to the campus’s Department of Facilities Services communications director Christine Shaff, construction first began late last summer and is nearly complete, with the first move into this new facility scheduled for the end of July.

The Energy Biosciences Building will be the home of the Energy Biosciences Institute’s Berkeley operations, said Ronald Kolb, communications manager for the institute.

The institute is an organization dedicated to the development of next-generation biofuels in a joint effort between UC Berkeley, the Berkeley Lab, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and energy company BP. Compared to SERC, whose work will sidestep plant biology completely, the institute will research crops and enzymes associated with the conversion of cellulose to fuels.

“Our goal is to probe all aspects of lignocellulosic fuels with the highest-quality academic research and to integrate knowledge from this broad investigation into a coherent understanding of the overall topic,” Kolb said.