August 21, 2009

Algae research advances in ExxonMobil, NASA collaborations

Algae research was validated and boosted this summer when two projects involving NASA Glenn Research Center and ExxonMobil Corp. were announced.

“Under a Space Act Agreement, NASA is partnering with Seambiotic USA to model growth processes for microalgae for use as aviation biofuel feedstock,” said Ami Ben-Amotz, chief scientific adviser to Israeli-based Seambiotic Ltd. “The goal of the agreement is to make use of NASA’s expertise in large-scale computational modeling and combine it with Seambiotic’s biological process modeling to make advances in biomass process cost reduction.” Seambiotic, which was founded in 2003 in Ashkelon, Israel, is scaling up a pilot process using carbon dioxide emissions from a coal power plant to cultivate algae for the nutriceutical and biofuels industries. The 5-hectare facility is expected to begin production in late 2009.

ExxonMobil announced its $600 million commitment for a comprehensive algae research program in partnership with California genetic researchers at Synthetic Genomics Inc. Under the terms of the agreement, SGI will work in a systematic approach to find, optimize and/or engineer superior strains of algae; and to define and develop the best systems for large-scale cultivation of algae and conversion into biofuels. SGI plans to build a new research facility at San Diego. ExxonMobil’s research and engineering expertise will be utilized throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production to the manufacturing of finished fuels.

As milestones in the agreement are met, SGI will receive up to $300 million for the work over the next five to six years. “This agreement between SGI and EMRE represents a comprehensive, long-term research and development exploration into the most efficient and cost-effective organisms and methods to produce next generation algal biofuel,” said J. Craig Venter, founder and CEO of SGI. “We are confident that the combination of our respective expertise in science, research, engineering and scale-up should unlock the power of algae as biological energy producers in methods and scale not previously explored.”

Scientists at SGI have been working internally for several years to develop more efficient means to harvest the oils that photosynthetic algae produce. Traditionally, algae have been treated like a crop to be grown and harvested in a process that can be expensive and time consuming. One of SGI’s achievements has been in engineering algal strains that produce lipids in a continuous process and even secrete hydrocarbons directly. However, such engineered algae may ultimately not be cost effective, Venter said. “It may cost more to build bioreactors that would contain the engineered algae.” As part of the project, SGI will investigate thousands of strains, looking for desirable properties such as tolerance for high sunlight levels and concentrations as well as viral resistance. “There’s a wide range of algae in the environment and we’re finding a lot of exciting varieties,” he added.

ExxonMobil has looked at all biofuel options over the past couple of years, said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil, in a news conference following the announcement. The company examined the scalability, technical challenges, environmental performance and economics of several technologies, he said. “Algae biofuels rose to the top.” Jacobs added that ExxonMobil identified three needed research areas, one of which is the algae strain development SGI has been working with. The second area will be looking at the three major production systems now being considered in the emerging industry— open ponds, closed ponds and photo bioreactors. The third piece will be to develop the large, integrated systems that pull it all together. “We need improvements in all three areas,” he added. The goal will be to produce lipids as a biocrude that can be processed in existing refinery systems and distributed as a green hydrocarbon fuel in the existing transportation fuel infrastructure.

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