ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Open Greenhouse for Algae Biofuels Development

7/14/10Follow @bvbigelow

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long hydrocarbon chains, which Jacobs said is comparable at a molecular level to so-called intermediate streams produced in refineries from petroleum-based crude oil. The goal is to discover or create a specific type of algae that optimizes the production of storage oils, and to develop economical methods for extracting and producing those oils.

100-liter Photobioreactors

100-liter Photobioreactors

At Synthetic Genomics, scientists are screening “thousands to tens of thousands” of different types of algae, according to Venter. While maximizing the production of storage oil is obviously a key criterion, Venter said there are “literally hundreds of parameters” that Synthetic Genomics scientists are tracking in their quest to find the right species.

“They are little biological machines, but they are complicated machines,” Venter said.

At the ExxonMobil Research and Energy Co. in Fairfax, VA, scientists and engineers are working to identify the preferred design characteristics for optimizing algal production, Jacobs said. The options include growing and harvesting algae in open ponds, closed ponds, and “photo-bioreactors” that are like transparent bags or tanks.

“Part of the challenge of this program is that you can’t do the biology and the engineering processes in isolation. They are intimately linked. So as we make advances on the algae strain side, we test that versus several production systems to see what is the best match. It’s that integrated system that needs to be successful,” Jacobs said.

“What we don’t know yet is whether we can find the right combination of algae strains, growth systems, growing conditions, and production processes to make affordable, large-scale quantities of algae biofuels,” Jacobs said. “This program will help us answer those questions.”

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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