Martin Keller, ORNL's Associate Laboratory Director for Biological and Environmental Sciences, has responsibility for two research divisions (Biosciences and Environmental Sciences) and four research centers (the BioEnergy Science Center, the Center for BioEnergy Sustainability, the Center for Molecular Biophysics and the Center for Structural Molecular Biology). Keller came to his current position from his previous role as Director of the lab's Biosciences Division. We asked Keller about his organization's role in addressing some of the Department of Energy's key research challenges.
You spent a number of years working in the private sector. How does that experience compare with working at a national lab?
I spent ten years working at a biology company that started with 6 or 7 people and grew to about 400. The major difference between that company and a national laboratory is that things move faster in an organization that small. On the other hand, small companies are often preoccupied with intellectual property, so it's hard to publish an abstract or make a presentation at a meeting without having to deal with intellectual property concerns. These concerns can slow down both communication and the scientific process. In most respects, research in the national laboratories is much like that in private companies, except the "R" in "R&D" is bigger. We do more research and less development. That's a good thing. I'm a supporter of targeted fundamental research. We need to understand fundamental science to enable the development of new processes.
What initially attracted you to ORNL's biosciences program?
After ten years in the biotechnology industry, I thought that it was time to move on. I had a couple of opportunities to go back to academics or to other biotech companies, but I decided to come to ORNL because a national laboratory is the only place where researchers can work across the range of disciplines necessary to rapidly advance science. ORNL can bring together specialists in sustainability, biochemistry, materials research, computer modeling and other areas to address issues. That breadth of capabilities is not present in most other organizations.
Your organization is involved in interdisciplinary research across the laboratory. What benefits does this approach to R&D provide?
Let's take carbon fiber as an example. Carbon fiber can be produced from lignin, a byproduct of biofuel production. Carbon fiber can be used to create lightweight, high-strength components like body panels for cars, so there's a lot of interest in finding a way to produce high-quality, low-cost carbon fiber derived from lignin. If we kept each research discipline related to the production and use of carbon fiber in its own little stovepipe, we would miss the opportunities for synergies among these disciplines that might completely change our business model. We have scientists who know how to create carbon fiber from lignin, but they would like the lignin to have different properties that would result in better carbon fiber. We also have plant biologists who can manipulate the genetics of plants to produce very different lignin structures, but they are unfamiliar with what is required to produce high-quality carbon fiber. Neither group working individually can solve the problem; however, when we bring these two groups together, we can advance the technology.
Climate research has been assigned a high priority at ORNL. What is your directorate doing to support this mission?
Climate research is another example of a field where interdisciplinary research is increasingly important. Scientists specializing in genomics, proteomics and molecular biology are working with specialists in global climate simulation using the laboratory's Jaguar supercomputer. Many climate-related problems cannot be addressed through a single discipline. For example, we are planning an experiment in which plots of arctic soil that were previously covered with snow and ice will be warmed to determine how the carbon trapped in the soil will be released to the atmosphere. Will it be released as CO2? Will microbes in the soil degrade carbon to CO2 or methane? We don't know, but the data resulting from the study could have a tremendous impact on climate models.
DOE has a lot riding on the BioEnergy Science Center. What do you see as the primary challenge for the center?
I always say that in a large research project, particularly in interdisciplinary research, the biggest challenge is communication. If we bring a molecular biologist together with a computer scientist, we find out that they often don't speak the same scientific language. They have to invest the time to learn enough about each other's specialty to be able to communicate and to cooperate to reach common goals. In BESC we have made tremendous progress in communication to help our 320 staff members come up with a common language that enables them to work together effectively.
Now that we have overcome most of our communication obstacles, our biggest challenge is determining which of several very promising lines of bioenergy research will have the greatest impact in helping to create a biofuels industry. We have made astonishing progress in a number of areas, but we do not have the resources required to concentrate on all of them. The decision is similar to having a table full of delicious food, but being able to choose only two or three items.
What changes might the average consumer see in the use and availability of biofuels over the next ten years?
That's a tough question. I would say we absolutely will have the technology to establish a sustainable biofuels industry in ten years. There is no longer any doubt; it will happen. The more precise question is whether as a nation we want to do it. If we choose to have a viable biofuels industry ten years from now, there are a number of policy issues that must be addressed quickly. Which biomass crops will we use? Where will we plant them? Are farmers ready to make the transition to biomass? Where will the bioprocessing plants be sited?
In the next ten years, we will be capable of producing several blendable biofuels that can go into our standard fuel system. We will also have the option of planting a variety of different biomass crops, as well as producing a range of products, like carbon fiber, from bioprocessing byproducts. Will all this happen in ten years? It could. If we keep on the path and retain our commitment to biofuels as an alternative to imported oil, then this is the future we are moving toward.