Chevron to Fund Major Biofuel Research Projects at UC Davis

Article source:UC Davis 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 biofuels 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 another university, 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 (CTV), 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 (CIFAR), 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.

Cellulose is one of three major structural components of plant cell walls. It has been called the most abundant biological material on Earth. The other two structural components are hemi-cellulose and lignin. All three have their own characteristic properties influencing how we might use them for energy.

Food farming and processing already produce excess cellulosic biomass that could become biofuels. Jenkins said we could one day be driving on fuels made from leftover rice straw, wheat straw, orchard tree prunings, nutshells, fruit pits, and wine-grape skins and seeds.

Furthermore, farmers could grow dedicated energy crops — high-yield grasses such as miscanthus and switchgrass; oilseed crops such as canola, safflower and sunflower; and sugar crops such as beets and sweet sorghum. Foresters might grow fast-maturing (“short rotation”) trees, such as cottonwood and eucalyptus. (In the U.S , much attention has been directed at switchgrass, poplar and willow as energy crops. These are not necessarily preferred crops for California.)

Other biomass could be diverted from municipal waste — materials such as paper and cardboard that are unsuitable for recycling (for various reasons, including contamination); tree trimmings; and restaurant and residential garbage.

Shoemaker said, “Once we can cost-effectively break down plant cell walls to give sugars, then we open up a whole new manufacturing base for production of new fuels, chemicals and materials.”

On Sept. 28, the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research (CIFAR) will host a daylong conference on campus: “Overcoming Hurdles to Implementing Lignocellulosic Biofuels.”

State, federal initiatives

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.

Schwarzenegger also ordered that biomass contribute a 20 percent share of the state’s renewable portfolio standard for electricity in 2010 and 2020, goals that will require substantial increases in our biomass-fueled generating capacity.

Toward these goals, in July, Schwarzenegger announced a new Bioenergy Action Plan. “Our state is a biomass goldmine with tremendous resources found in our agriculture, forestry and urban waste,” he said.

And U.S. President George Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, outlined a new Advanced Energy Initiative. It includes speeding up the development of alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuels, including a goal of making cellulosic ethanol practical and competitive by 2012.

UC Davis and Chevron history

UC Davis has a long collaborative relationship with Chevron Corp., whose headquarters are located nearby in San Ramon. Since 1961, the company has given the university gifts of more than $5.6 million to support research and student scholarships in the Institute of Transportation Studies; College of Engineering; College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; College of Letters and Science; and School of Veterinary Medicine.

Also, a number of Chevron executives have served on UC Davis advisory committees and boards. Don Paul is on the 33-member External Research Advisory Board of the Office of Research. Rick Zalesky is on the Board of Advisors and the Hydrogen Pathways Program Advisory Committee of the Institute of Transportation Studies.

Approximately 180 UC Davis alumni work for Chevron companies.

About UC Davis

The University of California is one of the world’s foremost research and teaching institutions, and UC Davis is the University of California’s flagship campus for agricultural and environmental studies. UC Davis is a global leader in solving problems related to air and water quality; water and land use; agricultural practices; endangered and invasive plants and animals; climate change; resource economics; information technology; and human society and culture. Faculty and staff members in the College of Engineering, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and College of Biological Sciences are experts on transportation technology assessment, energy and environmental aspects of transportation, and transportation policy.

More information about UC Davis is available at

About Chevron

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., identifies, develops and commercializes emerging technologies and new energy systems including biofuels, hydrogen-related technologies, advanced energy storage technologies, renewable energy and nanotechnology. Chevron is one of the world’s leading energy companies. With more than 53,000 employees, Chevron subsidiaries conduct business in approximately 180 countries around the world, producing and transporting crude oil and natural gas, and refining, marketing, and distributing fuels and other energy products. Chevron is based in San Ramon, Calif.

More information about Chevron is available at