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optimize biological pathways in different cyanobacteria that will allow the algae to accumulate oils—triglycerides and wax esters that are high in energy density—inside cells. This is different from others that have sought to coax algae to secrete oils. How the intracellular oils ultimately get harvested from the algae organism is part of the engineering challenge facing Matrix’s partner, Roberts says. One mode of extraction, known as hydrothermal liquefaction, in which the organisms get heated up under pressure, is currently popular in the industry, he says.
By making algae that accumulate oils inside their cells—just like humans accumulate fat inside fat cells—Matrix hopes to gain the advantage of making algae that can stay alive, so it can keep on producing oil, and having it harvested on an almost daily basis from an open pond, Roberts says. Matrix Genetics recently received an issued patent on its technology for an engineered cyanobacteria strain that accumulates such triglycerides, which he says was an accomplishment that helped attract the new round of financing.
“We have viable lipid-producing organisms,” Roberts says.
Still, huge amounts of work remain. Speaking generally, McCormick says that “we’re at about version 2.0” with the current engineered cyanobacteria, and need to get to “version 4.0 or version 5.0” to start talking seriously about making oil from algae at commercial scale.
One of the challenges will be to work on coaxing the cyanobacteria to make larger amounts of oils, and not spend too much energy toward duplication and growth of the cyanobacteria itself, Roberts says. Once that lipid biosynthesis work is optimized, then the only way to further increase the efficiency of oil production will be to increase the amount of carbon that goes through the pathway, he says. Doing that in an open natural environment, without the benefit of cost-prohibitive controlled industrial vats that could inject extra CO2 in the environment, is going to take “some rather creative biological engineering,” Roberts says.
If all goes well, Matrix should be in position to raise a Series B financing in about 24 months, McCormick says. The company could be in a position then to license its modified cyanobacteria to other energy companies, and to reap rewards from its work as a small technology provider to the big boys of the oil business.
“We never thought we could solve all the problems ourselves that need to be solved to make the algal biofuel industry successful,” Roberts says. “If there’s been a mistake made in the industry it’s that the companies that have gotten started have taken it upon themselves to be integrated. To develop the biology, to do the scale-up, the harvesting technology, the refining technology. I don’t think it’s possible for a single company to be successful at every step. The problems are too difficult.”
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