‘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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  • anonymous

    We have spent over $2.2 billion dollars on algae research for the last 35 years and nothing to show for it. Algae has been researched to death at universities for the last 50 years in the US. The problem is as long as the algae researchers can say we are 3-5 years away, its too expensive and they need more research they get the grant money. Nothing will ever get commercialized at the university level.

    There are commercial algae plants being built today with private money without any federal money and federal grants. The question you need to be asking is ” Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil or do we want to continue to fund the algae researchers at the universities.” The problem is we can grow, harvest and extract algae today with all “off-the-shelf” proven technology. We no not need genetic modification at all when there are existing algae strains currently on the market with 30-60% oil content.

    We need monies going into algae oil production and stop wasting money on research. Algae researchers are incapable of commercializing anything!

  • Curt Fischer

    1. I strongly disagree with anonymous above. The Aquatic Species Program was long-standing algal research funding program, and was run by the DoE from the 1970s to the 1990s. The Aquatic Species Program Closeout Report is cited in nearly every algae-based presentation or cost analysis I see.

    I don’t do and have never done research in the area of algal biofuels, but nonentheless in my mind the ASP is one of the best examples of government-funded research done right.

    2. The statement “we can grow, harvest and extract algae today with all “off-the-shelf” proven technology” was as true 30 years ago as it is today. Since “off-the-shelf” algae processing technologies existed 30 years ago, one must ask why they have not and are not currently used for commercial fuels production. What matters, as with most commodities, is the cost of the technology, not just whether it exists.

    One answer to the question “Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil?” is “not if it means that gasoline will cost $10 per gallon”. Until researchers, whether industrially or governmentally-funded, develop better methods for separating algae from water and for boosting *volumetric* productivities and titers of algal biomass, the prospects for algae-derived fuels competitive in today’s market are very dim.

  • anonymous

    The US has spent over $2.5 billion on grants for algae research and nothing has been commercialized to date. How much more money is going to be spent on algae research?

    Stop with the research and start producing.

  • J

    This really bugs me.

  • anonymous

    This bugs us too! This need to be investigated immediately. Millions of dollars of grant monies are going for research but ZERO is going for production.

    Heard from reliable sources some of the same algae researchers and other organizations that have received grants for research have set up their own “private algae companies”. Looks like universities and other organizations are using government grants to start their own businesses.

    Again, Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil, or do we want to continue algae research?