Back to the future all over again exxonmobil targets algae fuels at scale by 2025, as oil prices rise biofuels digest 66 gas station

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And, we’re talkin’ about algae biofuels again. In part because Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil kept on pushing when others abandoned the field. In part because algae economics and technology have changed — and demonstrations of technical competence and partnership announcements have given way to discussions of deploying at scale. The SGI and Exxon advance in detail

The new phase of research includes an outdoor field study that will grow naturally occurring algae in several contained ponds in California. The research will enable ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics to better understand fundamental engineering parameters including viscosity and flow, which cannot easily be replicated in a lab. The results of this work, the partners say, are important to understand how to scale the technology for potential commercial deployment.

The work will be done in California’s Imperial Valley, near Calipatria, near the Californian algae mecca named, as fate would have it, Mecca. It’s acre-scale, that facility. Some time ago Craig Venter had purchased an abandoned carbon capture center that in the end became a center for nutraceutical development — a lot more about astaxanthin than carbon capture. The site offers “all the accoutrements” for an algae test. Will the new high-yield algae survive?

Tossing a whole bunch of algae into a pond that have twice as much oil content as their brethren is like throwing fattened-up salmon to a community of hungry bears. You wonder how long these little fatties will be able to ward off the predators, not to mention the competitors, pests, dust, viruses and what not found in the natural grab-bag known as an outdoor pond.

“The good thing,” Brown told us, “is that since we kicked off this project in 2009, robustness has been top of the list along with salinity and the ability to make lipids. What we’ve found is that our strains, even with the barrage of challenges in a pond, are the last man standing in the pond; they are a very good competitor, it’s not like we were developing yeast for a fermenter, these algae have learned to survive different lighting conditions, shading, temperature variability of the seasons.”

So, if the focal point is not survival, what’s on the docket? “It’s productivity,” said Brown, “and how do they ultimately fit with downstream processing — do they process the right way? We are developing the strains but the strains have to enable a process, so as we discover feedback from processing there may be need to modify the phenotype.

In 2017, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics announced breakthrough research published in Nature Biotechnology that resulted in a modified algae strain that more than doubled oil content without significantly inhibiting growth, a key challenge along the path to commercial scalability.

Global demand for transportation-related energy is projected to increase by about 25 percent through 2040, and accelerating the reduction in emissions from the transportation sector will play a critical role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently at proof of concept scale, at the productivity rates seen under lab conditions, the strain could produce up to 1600 gallons per acre per year of lipids suitable for low-carbon fuels. This is ten times greater than the oil-production rates of any known terrestrial plant that has seen widespread adoption, and double the productivity of the N. gaditana wild-type strain. Why algae start making more oil in the first place

But, what if the mechanism that shunts carbon either to protein or lipid production turns out to be genetically subtle and tunable? What if we could find a way to divert the carbon down the lipid-producing pathway, without impacting the delivery of nitrogen for those other critical growth-supporting activities? Steering carbon rather than starving nitrogen?

In English: If you’ve ever been at a dance with a very good-looking prospective partner and suddenly found yourself completely lost for words — that’s not the same biological process but it’s the same result, the algae lose the ability to do something they really want to do.

Actually, nannochloropsis gaditana is one of a number of strains that SGI has domesticated and is working to modify — and that makes these wild-type natural strains an excellent model for gaining some understanding of the engineering parameters. What isn’t being worked on much right now

How to get the water out of the algae, or get the algae out of the water, how to extract the oils, what to do with the resultant mountain of protein that 10,000 barrels of oil might come paired with, how to do the downstream processing from algae oil to a finished fuel, and where and for how much all of the above will happen — questions abound. But that’s for Exxon’s engineers more than the team of biologists at Exxon and SGI that have been at work. It’s a long road to 2025. The SGI-Exxon backstory

“Our work with Synthetic Genomics on algae biofuels continues to be an important part of our broader research into lower-emission technologies to help reduce the risk of climate change,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “The new outdoor phase is a critical next step in determining a path toward large-scale, commercial production.”

“We are excited to take this next significant step as we journey together toward a renewable, scalable, and low-carbon biofuel,” said Oliver Fetzer, Ph.D., chief executive officer at Synthetic Genomics. “The progress we are making in the lab toward engineering highly efficient algae strains that convert sunlight and CO2 into renewable high energy density biofuel is exciting and warrants continued research about how our technology will scale. Our outdoor algal facility creates a perfect stepping stone from our labs to the greenhouse and to the outdoors to lay the foundation for a large scale commercial deployment of our technology in the future.” The Bottom Line

It’s a big step for this partnership to get out of the lab and into the pond, and although rising oil prices have little to do with it, the timing of rising oil prices reminds us why alternative fuels remain a priority, even for petroleum companies. Soaring energy prices lead consumers to abandon internal-combustion engines faster than you can say “crumbling oil major stock price”.

2025 is almost an unimaginable distance for consumers and feels like the day after tomorrow for engineers. It will be some time before we come closer and clearer on the real commercial prospects. But “10000 barrels a day” and “2025”, that’s new language from this partnership, and underline that twice in your mind because neither of these parties, in their algae pursuits, have been noted as hype-kings.

Of course, Exxon has run one heck of a lot of television commercials around its work in algae, prompting one friend of the Digest to suggest that they spent more on the commercials than the algae. That’s funny but unfair, yet it’s good news to see some more specific language around dates and scale, even if 2025 feels miles away to many, and even if the prospect of 10,000 barrels per day of algae-based fuel won’t exactly knock Saudi Aramco’s IPO into a tailspin.