Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Great Green Bags of Micro-Algae Invade La Jolla

The joint micro-algae fuel venture involving Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and Exxon/Mobil, have just opened a new research greenhouse facility in La Jolla, CA. The facility is described as a "halfway house" between a research lab and a pilot facility.
In the greenhouse facility, researchers from ExxonMobil and SGI will examine different growth systems for algae, such as open ponds and closed photobioreactors. They will evaluate various algae, including both natural and engineered strains, in these different growth systems under a wide range of conditions, including varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations.
They will also conduct research into other aspects of the algae fuel production process, including harvesting and bio-oil recovery operations.
Things don’t always translate well from the lab bench to the scale that we need to literally supply billions of gallons of fuel is this is to have any impact at on shifting CO2 levels. Things that work well in the lab don’t always work well outside the lab—in fact, most of the time they don’t.
—J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and CEO for SGI
ExxonMobil and SGI researchers say they have made substantial progress since the program was announced last July, including:
  • Isolating and/or engineering a large number of candidate algal strains and developing growth conditions under which these strains could be made more productive. SGI scientists are seeking to optimize numerous characteristics, including the types of hydrocarbons produced, and in some cases excreted by the algae into the growth media.
    A key part of the genetic engineering, Dr. Venter noted, is determining the length of the hydrocarbon chains produced by the algae, and optimizing those for refining.
  • Identifying and testing some of the preferred design characteristics of the different production systems, including closed, open or photobioreactors; and
  • Initiating life cycle and sustainability studies to assess the impact of each step in the process on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.
The next major milestone in the program, expected in mid-2011, is the opening of an outdoor test facility.

If research and development milestones are successfully met, ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million on the algae biofuels program over the next decade, $300 million of which will be allocated to SGI.
No one should expect any big algae fuel payoffs for Exxon/Mobil within the next ten years. But given the incredible capacity for growth of micro-algae, and the progressive improvements in energy balances for newer algae-to-fuel processes, it would be unwise to bet against microbial fuels (including algae) for the 2020s.



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