ExxonMobil is to team up with genome scientist J Craig Venter in a five-year $600 million deal to produce biofuel from algae.
The world’s largest oil company will work with Venter’s biotech company, Synthetic Genomics (SG), to develop fuel that can be used in cars and planes without requiring engine modification and made in existing refineries.
Venter is the controversial figure whose former company, Celera, was behind private-sector efforts to sequence the human genome. SG already has a partnership with BP. In December 2007 Shell announced plans for an algae project in Hawaii.
The company has estimated an annual algal fuel yield of more than 20,000 litres per hectare, but will first need Venter to resolve the problem scientists have had thus far in transforming naturally occurring algae into fuel – namely that algae convert nutrients into carbohydrate and protein rather than the lipid fats that are the key ingredient of biodiesel.
‘Algae consumes carbon dioxide and sunlight in the presence of water, to make a kind of oil that has similar molecular structures to petroleum products we produce today,’ said Emil Jacobs, ExxonMobil’s vice president of research and development. ‘That means it could be possible to convert it into gasoline and diesel in existing refineries, transport it through existing pipelines, and sell it to consumers from existing service stations.’
The Ecologist has reported on the failure of the biofuels industry to achieve the holy grail of sustainable algal fuel, either harvesting algae from natural sources or controlling the environment in which the algae grow, whether through open ponds or closed 'bioreactors'.
Nevertheless ExxonMobil will pump $300 million into a new lab and production facilities for Synthetic in San Diego, including open ponds and bioreactors, as well as investing $300 million in its own research.
‘We will be trying out these different approaches… using newly-discovered natural algae to test the best approaches we can come up with to go into a scale-up mode,’ said Venter.
The scientist claims already to have discovered organisms that can turn carbon dioxide into methane and coal into natural gas.