Venter: algae biofuels require “real scientific breakthroughs”; biofuels need a carbon tax to be viable
During his keynote and subsequent question-and-answer session at the BIO Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in San Diego this week, Dr. Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman, and CEO, J. Craig Venter Institute and Founder and CEO, Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) tangentially provided a brief update on the status of SGI’s research work with ExxonMobil into algae biofuels, as well as some general observations on the prospects for algae biofuels.
“As far as I know, the same experiment has been done over and over again for the last 50 years. To my knowledge, not one single group has achieved higher lipid levels than you can get out of natural occurring algae. For it to be economically viable we need at least five times that rate. … In my view, we need some real scientific breakthroughs that change what algae can do,” said Dr. Venter.
In June 2009, SGI and ExxonMobil announced a research and development alliance focused on naturally occurring and conventionally modified algae strains. (Earlier post.) Under the program, if research and development milestones were successfully met, ExxonMobil expected to spend more than $600 million.
After nearly four years working together, the companies had gained considerable knowledge about the challenges in developing economical and scalable algae biofuels. (Earlier post.) In May 2013, SGI announced a new co-funded research agreement with ExxonMobil to develop algae biofuels. (Earlier post.)
The May 2013 agreement is a basic science research program that focuses on developing algal strains with significantly improved production characteristics by employing synthetic genomic science and technology.
What I have seen happen in the algae field, is that you can look in the literature 50 years ago and find people did the same experiments [as are being done now]. They do them [now] with higher enthusiasm, but it doesn’t change the outcome.
Our team has been focused on modifying photosynthesis and we managed to change the efficiency of the photosynthetic process, but it did not yield more lipid. So the biomass actually went down, the cell number went up. The approach we are trying is making a whole new synthetic chromosome to add to algae that totally changes the gene and protein set available. I think that’s the best hope. We don’t know if that is going to work.—Craig Venter
In addition to the scientific challenges, the biofuel field faces significant economic hurdles, Venter pointed out. For one, fuels are basically at the bottom of the economic ladder. In the Omega 3s food area, Venter said, his team has managed to deliver a lot of lipid production; the approach may be applicable to the energy field.
But when you look at the economics of producing Omega 3s versus making something just to burn, it doesn’t make you want to work on fuels at all.
Fuels were an early publicly sexy target, but they are the lowest end of the entire field. We were talking at lunch. A glass full of therapeutic antibodies would be worth millions of dollars … or about 50¢ worth of biofuel. If we’re going to target one or the other, I think it’s clear which direction to go to. Food and chemicals are much further up the economic ladder. With the discovery of all the natural gas, once again the biofuel field is set back tremendously.
The only way to have a viable biofuel industry, Venter said, is with a serious carbon tax and a serious commitment to reversing carbon.