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ExxonMobil Launches Major Advanced Algal Biofuel Research and Development Program With Synthetic Genomics; More than $600M Targeted

ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) has launched what it calls a “significant” new program to research and develop advanced biofuels from photosynthetic algae that are compatible with today’s gasoline and diesel fuels. As part of the program, ExxonMobil has formed a strategic research and development alliance with Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company focused on developing genomic-driven solutions and founded by genome pioneer, Dr. J. Craig Venter.

Under the program, if research and development milestones are successfully met, ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million, which includes $300 million in internal costs. As part of the multi-faceted agreement, SGI will receive milestone payments for achievements in developing technology related to algal-based biofuels and related products. Total funding for SGI in research and development activities and milestone payments could amount to more than $300 million with the potential for additional income from licensing to third parties.

The majority of the research performed by SGI will take place in its facilities located in La Jolla, CA. EMRE will conduct its research primarily at its Clinton, NJ and Fairfax, VA facilities. The sites for scale-up activities will be determined at a later date. As part of the agreement SGI will be building a new greenhouse and test facilities, as well as hiring a substantial number of new employees.

Photosynthetic algae, which include microalgae (single-celled algae) and cyanobacteria (most commonly known as blue-green algae) are very efficient at utilizing 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. Such bio-oils from photosynthetic algae could be used to manufacture a full range of fuels including gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel that meet the same specifications as today’s products.

EMRE estimates that algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre of production per year. (Earlier post.) Approximate yields for other biofuel sources are far lower:

  • Palm: 650 gallons per acre per year
  • Sugar cane: 450 gallons per acre per year
  • Corn: 250 gallons per acre per year
  • Soy: 50 gallons per acre per year

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 believe 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, and/or engineer superior strains of algae. The teams will also look to define and develop the best production systems—open (ponds), and/or closed (e.g. tubular) photobioreactors—for large-scale cultivation of algae and conversion of their products into useful biofuels.

ExxonMobil’s engineering and scientific expertise will be utilized throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production through to the manufacturing of finished fuels.

Main identified activities of the program include:

  • Identifying and/or developing algal strains that can achieve high bio-oil yields at lower cost.
  • Determining the best production systems to use for growing algal strains, either in open (ponds) or closed (e.g. tubular) photobioreactors, or both.
  • Determining how to supply large amounts of carbon dioxide needed to grow algae, which could provide benefits for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Developing the large, integrated systems required for full scale, economic production, upgrading and commercialization of biofuels.

The SGI/EMRE biofuel advancement from photosynthetic algae will proceed through six phases, each representing an essential step in the production chain:

  • Phase One: Algae development and growth
  • Phase Two: Algae harvesting
  • Phase Three: Recovery of bio-oil produced by the algae
  • Phase Four: Transport and storage of bio-oil
  • Phase Five: Conversion of bio-oil to biofuel
  • Phase Six: Production of commercial products
Primary Roles in the EMRE and SGI Strategic Alliance
EMRESGI
  • Leadership role in engineering, process development and scale up.
  • Key role in determining which type of production systems to utilize to grow the algae.
  • Key role in upgrading bio-oil produced by photosynthetic algae into finished products, and total process integration for development and commercial applications.
  • Leadership role in biological research for algae strain development, growth and harvesting.
  • Key role in determining which type of production systems to use to grow the algae.
  • Key role in bio-oil recovery research and development.

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 in a process that 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 comes after several years of planning and study and is an important addition to ExxonMobil’s ongoing efforts to advance breakthrough technologies to help meet the world’s energy challenges. 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 if our efforts result in an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel.

—Dr. Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company

ExxonMobil’s engineering and scientific expertise will be utilized throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production through the manufacturing of finished fuels.

The real challenge to creating a viable next generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes which will require significant advances in both science and engineering. The alliance between SGI and ExxonMobil will bring together the complementary capabilities and expertise of both companies to develop innovative solutions that could lead to the large scale production of biofuel from algae.

—Craig Venter, CEO of SGI

In 2007, SGI and BP entered a long-term research and development deal focused first on gaining a better understanding of the natural microbial communities in various hydrocarbon formations such as oil, natural gas, coal and shale. Such an understanding would enable the enhancement or increased production of the subsurface hydrocarbons. (Earlier post.)

The second phase of the BP/Synthetic Genomics program will be a series of field pilot studies of the most promising bioconversion approaches. BP and Synthetic Genomics will then seek to jointly commercialize the bioconversion of subsurface hydrocarbons into cleaner energy products.

Comments

kelly

On Ted Talks, Mr. Venter said that his goal was to replace the petrochemical industry.

The world has strange bedfellows. ExxonMobil could promote algal biofuels just as Chevron promoted EV NiMH batteries.

SJC

Venter will cash in on anything he can. I would rather have him doing this than trying to patent the human genome.

The Goracle

.

WHOAA!!! My Globalwarmist religon commands me to HATE ExxonMobil. But ExxonMobil is doing good for my god, Mother Earth, with this project. Head... about... to ... explode...

Myust call Al Gore to consult over this one.

.

ejj

Exxon Mobil made tens of billions in PROFITS over the past few years, primarily because the stars were aligned for them politically & economically. My guess is that they know it could be a generation or more before they ever saw profits like that again - hence the push into algae...a modest investment relative to their recent profits, with the potential to pay off big. They are also moving into natural gas - some smart moves overall.

JMartin

Algae is controlable and getting cheaper while new oil finds are getting harder and more expensive. Yes, this investment is pure genius on Exxon's part. I should be so smart.

Regardless, I think it is good news. It does not conflict with thier revenue stream like NiMH batteries did for Chevron. Exxon can actually benefit from competing with the Saudis and Russians by producing feedstock.

SJC

If they can make this work it will change things for sure. 2000 gallons per acre per year and all you need is water, nutrients and sunlight. No more 100s of billions of dollars going to the Saudis...I wish them luck.

kelly

In the future, suppose ExxonMobil(EM) could produce profitable algae gasoline for $4/gal while explored/refined identical oil gasoline cost $8/gal.

What price do you think we would be charged?

Of course, other algae/gas producers could correct the price. But wait, profitable oil-producing algae lifeforms are patented by an EM subdivision.

NEVER forget an industry history of monopoly, anti-trust litigation, and forced breakups. Perhaps rigging fuel prices, producing pollution, promoting leaded fuel, burying EV batteries etc. is old hat.

Patenting parts of the genetics that keep us alive could be a REAL money-maker.

sulleny

kelly makes a very good point. The patenting of portions of the human genome as well as engineered strains of algae - could lock up progress/research in these areas. Shortly a good team of experts needs to look into this genetic patents area to puts some rules in place. M. Crichton's novel "Next," deals with the subject in an entertaining way.

I worry less about Exxon engineering bio-gasoline since the need for liquid fuels in personal transport is a shrinking market. But they have plenty of room to expand into jetfuels and heavy lifting diesel.

Venter has been all over the world digging up strains of micro-algae and cyanobacteria in the hope of selling engineered strains for various purposes. This is great as long as there are no attempts to corner the market with broad patents on algae strains.

Should Exxon find a method of harvesting lipid-producing biomass - especially in seawater - it will benefit many. Low-cost algal oil has long been a preferred energy solution. Good luck EM.

ejj

Venter is a god to a lot of people - he should have no problem recruiting ex students of his to work on this. It's actually a good fit & the incentives are set up properly...hundreds of millions at first, potentially billions and billions later if everyone gets along and plays nice (big oil, leftist PhD, grads etc) - but that will be the big unknown part of the equation (will everyone work hard & play nice?)....potentially win-win-win-win for Venter, ExxonMobil, AlGore, the auto industry & unions, governments that need tax revenue, the environment and the free world.

SJC

Craig Venter is always in search of his next yacht and TV show. Nothing wrong with enterprising as long as you do not try to rule the world with patent monopolies.

Alain

There are so many kinds of algae and other biomass producing organisms, and other strategies to produce renewable fuels that there will certainly be enough competition to result in a competitive price. The most important thing is that the research advances as fast as possible. So if b$ incentives for bio-giants can crush the OPEC-monopoly, I realy don't mind that Venter becomes the next Bill Gates. Even if Venter would controll the complete biofuel industry as long as his patents last (which is higly improbable), then for a long time to come, the price of fuel will not be determined by him, but by OPEC. As long as biofuel has relatively low volumes compared to fossil fuel, the 'supply side' (and consequently the price) will almost completely be determined by OPEC and the stock market. If he can produce fuel at 30$/barrel and the market price is 100$/barrel, he will be a rich man, but not because of patent monopoly, but simply because the world-price of oil is at 100$/barrel. The point is that in that case, he knows very well that if he would double his production, that would hardly change the world price, and he would become twice as rich. So I hope he desires to become twice as rich again and again. By the time the volume of algae fuell can realy change the world price, many alternatives will be into the game and the fuel-price will be determined by the same rules as the cellphone price today : a higly competitive market where many alternatives outcompete eachother for the best price. Since fuels are extremely simple to compare and interchange, competition will drive the price. It is not because Edisson invented the light bulb, that General electrics controlls the price of light bulbs, just be gratefull he invented it.

kelly

There may be many kinds of biomass producing organisms, just as there are many kinds of batteries. But the chemistry that has powered over 90% of the hybrid EVs on the road wasn't invented by an oil firm, yet an oil company controls the NiMH patents and royalties.

It's good that oil firms didn't offer early Microsoft money. Innovations that partner with oil are usually absorbed. Venter may earn his riches, but expect EM to control the critical genetic life technology.

ToppaTom

I hear that EM already has 3 patents on large format algae.

Henry Gibson

Would the algae be specially engineered so that it and its oil would be poisonous, so that it could not be considered taking food from the hungry.

For personal use, a concentrating parabolic mirror that ran a generator and charged an electric car would be better.(Infinia) A co-generator running on natural gas could be used for fuel savings at even lower costs.

How about computer controlled micro factories that made H2 with solar heat from parabolic mirrors. H2 would be combined with CO2 to make methanol which can be burned directly in slightly modified automobiles. It is not too expensive to transport H2 in plastic pipes to central locations where CO2 is available as at ethanol factories. Yeasts can make ethanol with H2 even. H2 from simple electrolysis is cheaper than $150 oil.

Foreign sea weed is taking over San Fancisco Bay; What will the engineered algae do to the natural population when it escapes. ..HG..

SJC

I am all for solar PV powering EVs. Most of the trips are under 40 miles, so the solar energy on your roof top will do most of what you need done.

This would put quite a kink in the middle eastern countries strangle hold. This could be the best of all outcomes, technology makes oil less necessary and the power that comes from with holding it will weaken.

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