Synthetic Genomics to Build Algae Biofuels Facility in San Diego

The $600 million that ExxonMobil is investing to develop algae-based biofuels, including at least $300 million through its partnership with San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics, represents the largest single investment in the emerging technology, according to J. Craig Venter, Synthetic Genomics’ founding CEO.

Venter and Emil Jacobs, a vice president at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, discussed what Jacobs describes as “a collaborative research and development program” during a conference call with reporters this morning. ExxonMobil plans to spend about $600 million on the effort over the next five to six years, with at least half of that funding work at Synthetic Genomics.

With ExxonMobil’s backing, the startup plans to begin construction of a new biofuels test facility in San Diego to test different strains of genetically engineered algae and methods of commercial biofuels production. “It will be a greenhouse facility that will enable us to test open and closed bioreactor systems,” Venter says. “We hope construction will start fairly soon.”

According to Venter, Synthetic Genomics already has engineered algae to “secrete hydrocarbons,” which would enable a different approach to commercial biofuel production than what other biofuel startups have envisioned. By developing algae that secrete fuelstocks rather than algae that store the oils they produce within their cellular bodies, Venter says the technology becomes “biomanufacturing instead of farming.” Rival startups, such as San Diego’s Sapphire Energy, have been described a commercial production process that involves extracting oil from algae grown in open ponds.

Venter, who gained renown for his brash approach to sequencing the human genome, founded Synthetic Genomics in 2005 with a handful of other prominent scientists and investors. The co-founders include Juan Enriquez, a managing director of Excel Venture Management, which also invested in the startup, and Hamilton O. Smith, the microbiologist and Nobel laureate who serves with Venter as the company’s co-chief scientific officer.

During a wide-ranging conference call with reporters, Venter and Jacobs described aspects of their collaboration, and identified a number of problems that must still be resolved before biofuels derived from algae becomes a reality. Some of the issues they discussed are:

—Before deciding to make its $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels, Jacobs says, “It’s safe to say we looked at all biofuel energy sources.” In scrutinizing other potential biofuel products, Jacobs says, ExxonMobil considered the technical challenges of the product, the ability to take the technology to industrial-scale production, as well as environmental factors, such as the effects on carbon dioxide, land use, and water use. Finally, Jacobs says, they chose the biofuel technology offering the best odds of leading to a product that can be competitively priced with petroleum-based fuels. “Once we identified algae biofuels,” Jacobs says, “we cast the net in terms of alright, who do we want to work with?”

—Among the immediate goals is to identify the strains of algae that can be grown rapidly and are the most robust in producing lipids, fatty molecules that can be converted into hydrocarbon fuels. Researchers also must determine the best method of commercial production, which may involve growing algae in open ponds, closed ponds, or closed-system “bioreactors.” Jacobs says the production system must be low-cost and highly efficient to produce biofuels at a price that is competitive with such petroleum-based transportation fuels as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

—Production facilities will have to be established in locations with several key factors, which Jacobs says include sunlight, water (algae grows well in saltwater and brackish water) and carbon dioxide, a notorious greenhouse gas that is absorbed by algae and other plants and essential to their growth. Jacobs says utilizing the carbon dioxide produced by a power plant or refinery to feed the algae could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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