The prospect of growing algae to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produce nearly-carbon neutral diesel, petrochemicals, or bioplastics is moving gradually toward commercialization, with investors directing hundreds of millions of dollars into dozens of start-ups. One of those ventures, backed by genomics pioneer Craig Venter and colossal fossil ExxonMobil, says it’s on track to produce 10,000 barrels of biofuel per day by 2025.
“Algae biofuels were once the darlings of the alternative energy sector,” reports the Harvard Business School alumni magazine. “That’s because the aquatic microorganisms use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize sugar, proteins, and fat—the latter in the form of an oil that can replace fossil fuels in applications where batteries either can’t store enough power or are simply too heavy to lug around, like commercial aviation and maritime shipping.”
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Algae can also grow in salty or brackish water, unlike bioeconomy feedstocks like corn and soy, so they don’t compete with farm crops for water and arable land, HBS notes. “And the oil they produce is free from the pollutants that must be removed from fossil crude.”
Freelance writer Alexander Gelfand’s feature report focuses on Synthetic Genome Inc. (SGI), a biotech firm founded by Venter along with Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith and writer, life sciences investor, and Harvard grad Juan Enriquez. The company’s 2025 target is based on an R&D breakthrough that involved genetically engineering an algae that moves past the basic barrier that has frustrated other development projects, coaxing the single-celled organisms to continue producing fat without shutting down their growth.
“In a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in 2017, SGI researchers analyzed the genome and metabolism of the marine algae Nannochloropsis gaditana and uncovered a group of genes responsible for regulating oil production,” Gelfand explains. “By tweaking one of those genes with the powerful editing tool known as CRISPR, the team ultimately doubled the amount of oil produced by the algae without significantly hindering their growth.”
That breakthrough “finally provides a line of sight to a scalable algae biofuel,” he writes. “The company is already growing algae in outdoor ponds at a test facility near California’s Salton Sea,” and is looking ahead to a day when large pools of algae can be located wherever salt water is available along with consistently warm temperatures. The developers are also looking at algae vats as a possible solution to production (though not downstream) emissions in carbon-intensive industries: “The ponds could even be parked next to heavy CO2 emitters like cement factories and power plants so that the organisms can suck up excess carbon while churning out clean, renewable biocrude,” Gelfand notes.
“Having cracked the problem of boosting oil production, engineering algae to make petrochemicals ranging from fertilizers to plastics ought to be relatively straightforward,” he states, and Enriquez sees the prospect of other organic products down the road: “You can make vaccines in the stuff, you can make medicines in the stuff, you can make food in the stuff,” he said.
Alexander Gelfand is a freelance writer in New York City and (full and proud disclosure) a cousin of The Energy Mix publisher Mitchell Beer.
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