Friday, May 24, 2024

Member Blog: David Zilberman

EBI Opportunities – a Perspective

I am an economist working on agriculture, natural resources, and the environment. I have been at Berkeley for 50 years and, over the years, have studied issues of water, technology adoption, biotechnology and biofuel, climate change, and, recently, supply chains. Economics is an integrating discipline- that combines knowledge from multiple disciplines to assess tradeoffs and help make decisions for firms and government organizations. Changes do not occur only because new technological solutions are available- they require policies and institutional change to take advantage of new options.

Climate change is one of humanity’s biggest challenges–and it will likely lead to a gradual transition from current petroleum-based energy systems to alternative, more sustainable solutions. When I learned that Berkeley and the University of Illinois plan to collaborate with BP on the research aims to develop second-generation biofuels – I asked to join the research team.

I discovered the excellence of science at Berkeley: I knew about it from personal committees, but working with scientists, you learn the technological options and the challenges scientists and companies face when developing innovation. They learned about the economics and policy considerations that affect their options. The EBI provides opportunities to understand biofuels. Corn ethanol has become cheaper, but it is not a good solution to climate change. Its main advantage is that it increases energy independence. Sugarcane ethanol is much more environmentally sound, as well as second-generation biofuels. Still, our work stopped because of the Gulf Coast Horizon oil spill that reduced the capacity of BP to support the EBI. But the EBI didn’t go away. Chris Sommerville, our legendary leader, retired, and John Coates took over, and we started a partnership with Shell Oil.

Working on the real problem with scientists in a company affected my research agenda. I realized that one of the challenges of establishing second-generation biofuels is developing a supply chain of miscanthus and other plants. Furthermore, I realized that we don’t have a strong supply chain theory, and I started working on one with some experts in the field, including Thomas Reardon. It resulted in a publication where we distinguished between the supply chain of innovation and products, realized they are independent, and used it to analyze the evolution of different supply chains. It also led me to take over a class (EEP 141) on ag and the environment and emphasize supply chain. It has attracted more than 140 students since 2016. Now, the students are interested in analyzing the difference between Ali Baba and Amazon and the complexity of the beef supply chain. Furthermore, with EBI money, I supported two students and a postdoc with wonderful academic careers. Deepak Rajagopal is an associate professor at UCLA, Steve Sexton got tenure at Duke, and Gal Hochman is a professor at Rutgers.

In my work with Shell, I collaborated to improve batteries and develop a supply chain for hydrogen. We organized several workshops on the economics of batteries and different ways to contribute to their improvement. We identified research that would result in beneficial and profitable improvements, including developing cheaper and safer batteries and new sources of lithium. I like to realize the depth of knowledge we have on campus and nationally on batteries, some of the challenges, and most importantly, some of the opportunities the EBI world gave Ph.D. students and postdocs. My other projects involved developing the foundation for a supply chain of hydrogen. During the pandemic, we organized virtual workshops with participants from Shell, the Port of L.A., Microsoft, and scientists from all over. I realized the potential of hydrogen as an alternative energy for producing steel, improving transportation, and producing energy for other applications. The challenges of building inter-dependent supply chains (for hydrogen and vehicles that use it) require further scientific innovation, smart policy, and its major challenges and opportunities to the researchers who work with the company.

The EBI has been considering expanding and becoming a university focal point for collaboration between scientists and the private sector. I worried that companies would tell us “what to do.” However, working on at least three projects, I realized that they need our creativity and ideas–they raise a challenge, and it’s up to us to develop a research program to address basic scientific problems. The EBI helped my career, and from my experience, I believe that the system is designed in a way that protects our academic freedom. I see it as a mechanism where we increase the university’s support and help solve real-world problems. After seeing Oppenheimer, I realized that Berkeley wouldn’t become Berkeley without obtaining resources from the real world, and having Berkeley involved in the real world made the world better.

No comments:

Post a Comment