Next Generation Biofuels Using Photosynthetic Algae

photosynthetic algae
Photosynthetic algae is a natural producer of biofuels.
(cc) Allan Haggett

Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company that applies genomic-driven commercial solutions to address a variety of global challenges including energy and the environment, has signed a multi-year research and development agreement with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company to develop next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae.

As part of this multi-faceted agreement, SGI will receive milestone payments for achievements in developing biofuel products. Total funding for SGI in research and development activities and milestone payments could exceed $300 million with the potential for additional income from licensing to third parties.

“This agreement between SGI and EMRE represents a comprehensive, long-term research and development exploration into the most efficient and cost effective organisms and methods to produce next generation algal biofuel,” said SGI Founder and CEO, J. Craig Venter. “We are confident that the combination of our respective expertise in science, research, engineering and scale-up should unlock the power of algae as biological energy producers in methods and scale not previously explored.”

Photosynthetic algae, which include microalgae (single celled algae) and cyanobacteria (most commonly known as blue-green algae) are organisms that are very efficient at using the energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into cellular oils (lipids) and even some types of long-chain hydrocarbons that can be further processed into fuels and chemicals. However, naturally-occurring algae do not carry out this process at the efficiencies or rates necessary for commercial-scale production of biofuels.

Using SGI’s scientific expertise and proprietary tools and technologies in genomics, metagenomics, synthetic genomics, and genome engineering as a platform, SGI and EMRE are confident that biology can now be harnessed to produce sufficient quantities of biofuels.

Under the terms of the agreement, SGI will work in a systematic approach to find, optimize, or engineer superior strains of algae, and to define and develop the best systems for large-scale cultivation of algae and conversion of their products into useful biofuels. ExxonMobil’s engineering and scientific expertise will be employed throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production through to the manufacturing of finished fuels.

Scientists at SGI have been working internally for several years to develop more efficient means to harvest the oils that photosynthetic algae produce. Traditionally, algae have been treated like a crop to be grown and harvested, but such a process can be expensive and time consuming. One of SGI’s achievements has been in engineering algal strains that produce lipids in a continuous process that is currently more efficient and cost-effective.

“This investment is an important addition to ExxonMobil’s ongoing efforts to advance breakthrough technologies to help meet the world’s energy challenges,” ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company’s Vice President of Research and Development, Dr. Emil Jacobs. “Meeting the world’s growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources. We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future because of its potential to be an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel.”

ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, uses technology and innovation to help satisfy the world’s growing energy needs. ExxonMobil holds an industry-leading inventory of resources, is the largest refiner and marketer of petroleum products, and its chemical company is one of the largest in the world.

Synthetic Genomics Inc.,a privately held company founded in 2005, is dedicated to developing and commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address global energy and environment challenges. Advances in synthetic genomics present limitless applications in a variety of product areas, including energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The company’s main research and business programs are currently focused on the following major bioenergy areas: designing advanced biofuels with superior properties compared to ethanol and biodiesel; harnessing photosynthetic organisms to produce value added products directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide; developing new biological solutions to increase production and recovery rates of subsurface hydrocarbons, and developing high-yielding, more disease resistant and economic feedstocks.

Read Biofuels and Bioenergy: Processes and Technologies from Amazon.