This week, Bio-Based World News reported the innovative properties of algae, now we look into some of the more practical uses it can contribute to the world of biofuels. Algal biofuels are expected to have about 50 percent lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-derived fuel. Fortunately, a breakthrough by ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics means that an algae strain can more than double its oil content without inhibiting the strain’s growth. This will allow algae’s oil content to double from 20 percent to more than 40 percent. Until now, algae has only been considered as a potential sustainable fuel option. It has taken a decade of research to develop scalability and cost-efficient oil production. So could oil produced from algae could become the feedstock for chemical manufacturing of the future?
"This key milestone in our advanced biofuels programme confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source with a corresponding positive contribution to our environment."
Exxonmobil ( @exxonmobil ) is one of the largest petrol companies in the world but they have started funding a range of biofuel research programmes to convert biomass feedstocks into advanced biofuels. By contrast, Synthetic Genomics ( @SynGenomeInc ) solely operates in the field of synthetic biology. Since 2009, the two companies set up a partnership to research and develop oil from algae to be used as a renewable, lower-emission alternative to traditional transportation fuels. Now their objective is to identify the best way to make these technologies available to the consumer and this will build on much of the progress that has been made since their initial collaboration.
Algae can provide a diverse and highly desirable non-food source of the important renewable molecules that can be used to produce second generation biofuels. Some strains of algae can be optimised to produce bio-diesel precursors. Algae has been regarded as a potential sustainable fuel option, but researchers have been hindered for the past decade in developing a strain that is high in oil content and grows quickly.
“This key milestone in our advanced biofuels programme confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source with a corresponding positive contribution to our environment," said Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. "Our work with Synthetic Genomics continues to be an important part of our broader research into lower-emission technologies to reduce the risk of climate change."
The ability to sustain growth while increasing oil content is an important advance. Algae has other advantages over traditional biofuels because it can grow in salt water and thrive in harsh environmental conditions, therefore limiting stress on food and fresh water supplies.
"The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimize lipid production in algae. This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source," said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Synthetic Genomics co-founder and chairman.
While the breakthrough is an important step, the technology is still many years from potentially reaching the commercial market, but nevertheless, progress is being made.