College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Green leaders from the Bay Area: Chris Somerville

May 13, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle recently highlighted plant biologist Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, among 10 Bay Area entrepreneurs, scientists and policymakers at the vanguard of a revolution that aims to reinvent the way people use water, power their cars, build their houses and live their lives.

"They might not become household names," wrote the Chronicle, "but their research, policy papers and startups could shape the way many households run in the years to come." The story continues:

As a plant biochemist, Chris Somerville has pioneered the search for clean liquid-fuel sources harnessed from the solar energy stored in nonfood plants. Somerville is director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, an ambitious project financed by a $500 million grant from BP, the British oil company. It is the world's largest alliance between industry and academia.

Somerville has made the study of biofuels for transportation, along with the social, economic and environmental impact of such fuels, the institute's top priority.
His research teams are using global satellite imagery, geologic surveys and market databases to identify abandoned farmlands and nonagricultural soils that could support energy crops; trying to identify the plant species most suitable for biofuels; and using biotechnology laboratories to explore nature's methods of releasing plant sugars and to create synthetic catalysts.

"We're not in commercial development; we're trying to understand it first," said Somerville. "I feel optimistic. We're trying to push the frontier forward."

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