‘Restraint’ an Unspoken Watchword of Algae Biomass Sessions

A few basic themes seemed to emerge in the first few presentations yesterday afternoon during the 3rd Annual Algae Biomass Summit.

One theme is that the algae biofuels industry remains at a nascent stage of development, despite widespread enthusiasm over the size of San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics’ deal with ExxonMobil, and venture funding for Sapphire Energy. Biologist Steve Mayfield, a Sapphire co-founder who is moving from The Scripps Research Institute to UC San Diego, says scientific papers published about the E. coli bacteria outnumber the papers published about a common algae strain by nearly 50 to 1. That is a ratio that needs to be reversed, Mayfield says.

Another theme is that some industry leaders have been overly optimistic in saying that algae-based biofuels can be brought to market in two to four years. Bill Barclay of Columbia, MD-based Martek Biosciences says he spent 11 years developing and commercializing methods for using algae to produce a nutritional supplement called Omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an unsaturated fatty acid. (The startup that Barclay founded in 1987, Boulder, CO-based OmegaTech, was acquired by Martek for about $50 million in 2002.)

The process Barclay went through to make nutritional supplements from algae is comparable to the current effort to develop algae-based biofuels. But Barclay, a scientist who oversees Martek’s intellectual property, says much of the fundamental production technology is “immature,” and that timelines of two to four years from inception to production are unrealistic. Barclay says flatly, “Commercially feasible biodiesel from photosynthetic algae is more than 10 years away.”

And finally, the substitute for keynote speaker J. Craig Venter seemed determined not to say anything that Venter, his boss at San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics, had not previously disclosed publicly.

In other words, “restraint” was the unspoken watchword of the first day.

Venter, a pioneer in genetic sequencing and the founding CEO of Synthetic Genomics, already had agreed to be the conference headliner when he learned he had won a National Medal of Science (the highest honor awarded to scientists by the United States government). But later, Venter learned the White House scheduled the award ceremony with President Obama within a few hours of his scheduled introductory keynote address at the biomass summit, so he had to bail out of the algae conference.

Venter’s talk had attracted widespread interest because of the deal that Synthetic Genomics announced in July with the largest U.S. oil company. ExxonMobil said it plans to invest $600 million or more in the development of renewable, algae-derived biofuels, including at least $300 million through a development agreement with Synthetic Genomics. But Venter’s pinch-hitter, Paul Roessler, did not break any new ground about the deal.

Roessler, who oversees Synthetic Genomics’ biofuels and biochemicals production efforts, gave a good overview of Venter’s career and the scientific breakthroughs that led Venter and others from sequencing genomes to combining genes from different organisms—creating synthetic chromosomes. Using such techniques, Roessler says Synthetic Genomics has been working to essentially re-design the cellular machinery of algae to maximize the production of natural fats and oils—and to minimize or eliminate the factors that limit production. “We’ve been doing some work that gets past some of the cost issues associated with algae biofuels production,” Roessler says.

In one key development, Roessler says Synthetic Genomics has successfully re-engineered algae’s cellular machinery to secrete the fats and oils that are naturally produced. This enables the company to avoid the cost of harvesting and processing algae to recover the fats and oils normally stored within algae’s cellular walls. “We are able to collect the secreted oils,” Roessler says, “but I’m not going to go into that.”

Roessler also initially declined to comment when someone asked how many barrels of green crude Synthetic Genomics has been able to produce with its methods. But then he reversed himself, saying the company had previously disclosed in a press release that by some estimates algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre of production per year.

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

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