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|
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.