JBEI: Joint BioEnergy Institute

The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), is working to convert nonfood bioenergy crops into economically viable, carbon-neutral biofuels and bioproducts currently derived from petroleum, as well as many other bioproducts that cannot be efficiently produced from petroleum.

Ultimately, JBEI aims to:

  • Advance basic understanding of plant cell walls, biomass recalcitrance, and microbial physiology.
  • Establish predictive biosystems design tools for plants, microbes, and enzymes.
  • Develop technologies for feedstock-agnostic deconstruction that liberate high yields of sugars and lignin-derived intermediates suitable for bioconversion.
  • Make possible the production of drop-in biofuels at or less than $2.50 per gallon.
  • Make possible the production of novel bioproducts.

Research Focus Areas

Developing Better Plants for Biofuels.

Developing Better Plants for Biofuels. Building a successful lignocellulosic biofuels industry depends, in part, on developing specialized biofuel crops that are optimized for deconstruction into sugars and fermentation into biofuels and bioproducts. Pictured is sorghum, a bioenergy crop being grown at the University of California, Davis, a JBEI partner. The sorghum flowers are bagged to prevent pollen exchange. [Courtesy LBNL]

JBEI’s research is establishing the scientific knowledge and new technologies in sustainability, feedstock development, deconstruction and separation, and conversion that are needed to transform the maximum amount of carbon available in bioenergy crops into biofuels and bioproducts. When fully scaled, these advances will enable the production of replacements for petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and bioproducts.

Sustainability. JBEI seeks to ensure that bioenergy crops are robust and sustainable. Researchers are using technoeconomic and lifecycle assessment models to (1) predict the impact of JBEI’s scientific and technological breakthroughs on the biofuel selling price and carbon efficiency of conversion to fuels and products and (2) assess the long-term economic and environmental performance of scaled-up production at the U.S. national scale.

Feedstock Development. In developing fundamental understanding of cell wall biology and a suite of plant biosystems design tools, JBEI is creating a knowledgebase for engineering and field testing bioenergy crops. These crops are tailored for facile biomass deconstruction into sugars and lignin-derived intermediates and near full utilization by microbes engineered to produce biofuels and bioproducts. The field tests are also validating low susceptibility to disease and drought. Most of JBEI’s research in this focus area targets sorghum, but other JBEI work examines switchgrass and poplar.

Fatty acid synthesis

Fatty Acid Synthase. Fatty acids mimic some of the high–energy density properties that characterize hydrocarbon components of petroleum-derived fuels. Pictured is a computational model of the crystal structure of a fatty acid synthase. JBEI research has facilitated the discovery of a variety of enzymes and metabolic pathways that enable the biochemical conversion of fatty acids to a range of industrially relevant compounds. [Courtesy LBNL]

Deconstruction and Separation. JBEI is developing an integrated, feedstock-agnostic deconstruction process that uses renewable and biocompatible ionic liquids to pretreat the biomass, as well as optimized enzyme mixtures that depolymerize the polysaccharides and lignins into bioavailable oligomers. This integrated deconstruction process liberates high yields (as much as 90% or more) of the sugars and lignin-derived intermediates from bioenergy crops suitable for conversion into biofuels and bioproducts. This work includes the discovery and optimization of enzymes through the exploration of targeted ecosystems and microbes that are the natural sources of these enzymes. Further JBEI research in this focus area involves developing predictive biomass deconstruction tools that will enable the efficient design of affordable and scalable deconstruction processes based on these discoveries.

Conversion. JBEI is engineering microbes (e.g., P. putida and R. toruloides) with metabolisms that are able to simultaneously use the sugars and aromatics generated from the deconstruction process and produce a variety of targeted biofuels and bioproducts at industrially relevant titers, rates, and yields. These are products that otherwise would be made from petroleum using traditional chemistry.

Achieving these goals requires integration across all four research focus areas. Biomass deconstruction technology can be improved with engineered crops, the composition of which is matched as closely as possible with the metabolism of the microbes to maximize conversion. Ionic liquids are chosen to maximize product yield and minimize toxicity, which in turn enables process integration and consolidation. Finally, technoeconomic and lifecycle analyses are needed to optimize the sustainability and affordability of the entire process.

Additionally, JBEI is developing new analytical technologies and methods to meet current and future needs in biofuels research to increase sample throughput, decrease reagent use, increase measurement fidelity, and reduce assay time. These analytical technologies provide the high-quality data needed to feed machine-learning algorithms that can systematically direct the metabolic engineering process.

Industry Partnerships

JBEI is committed to transformative research and innovation that results in economic and performance step changes for biomanufacturing. The institute cultivates relationships with industry thought leaders through its advisory committee, biobased targets council, and continual outreach efforts. Robust communication with the private sector ensures that JBEI’s intellectual property (IP) is both cutting edge and industrially compelling, resulting in a rigorous commercialization pipeline consisting of multiple startup companies, licensing agreements, and strategic partnerships. LBNL manages all JBEI-related partnership agreements and IP, regardless of which partner institution owns the IP. In addition, JBEI employs a director of commercialization who coordinates all JBEI industry interactions. These structures enable industry to work with a single institution and point of contact to access all that JBEI has to offer.

Education and Outreach

JBEI’s 2019 Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM) Program Participants

JBEI’s 2019 Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM) Program Participants. The iCLEM program has been nationally recognized, and 98% of its alumni attend college with more than 80% majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). [Courtesy LBNL]

The mission of JBEI’s outreach efforts is to keep the nation at the forefront of scientific discovery by providing educational experiences and resources to students and teachers to enable future generations of scientists and encourage a diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. JBEI scientists mentor high school and undergraduate students, providing them with an opportunity to work in the laboratory on projects related to JBEI’s research program and to learn about industry’s current challenges and opportunities. JBEI also supports students, teachers, instructors, and professors with quality resources, including state-of-the-art activities, lesson plans, and information for all levels of education. JBEI collaborated in the development of bioenergy-related materials featured in Biotechnology: Science for the New Millennium (2017), which is used at over 1,200 high schools and 300 colleges to teach the concepts and hands-on laboratory procedures for preparing students for bioscience majors and careers in the rapidly growing biotechnology industry. The gem in JBEI’s broad outreach efforts is the Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM), an eight-week paid summer research program for high-potential, low-income high school students and the teachers serving under-resourced schools.

JBEI Partners

  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, California; lead institution)
  • Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Illinois)
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York)
  • Iowa State University (Ames)
  • Lawrence Livermore National
  • Laboratory (Livermore, California)
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington)
  • Sandia National Laboratories (Livermore, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico)
  • University of California (Berkeley)
  • University of California (Davis)
  • University of California (San Diego)
  • University of California (Santa Barbara)
  • University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (Parlier)

JBEI Contacts