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Venter’s New Hope: Synthetic Algae for Biofuels

11/07/2011
Ansa Varughese

Craig Venter changes his tune on biofuel source, shifting his focus from natural algae oil to synthetic biology.

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Craig Venter’s team has failed to find natural algae that produce the quantities of oil needed for the large-scale biofuel production. So, now they are exploring a new avenue, synthetic algae.

At last month’s New American Foundation conference on the future of energy, Venter told the audience that it seems unlikely that a natural strain of algae will be able to produce the quantities needed for industrial biofuel production.

Algae strains in large photobioreactors are evaluated under varying conditions, including varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations. Source: Business Wire







“It’s pretty obvious there’s nothing that’s gonna be in the natural world that produces the kind of levels that are needed,” said Venter.

Natural photosynthetic algae can produce about 2000 gallons of fuel per acre per year. But scalable biofuel production will require about 10-20,000 gallons per year. Since 2009, Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) and ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) have been collaborating on a $600 million initiative to find a photosynthetic algae that produces those quantities needed for commercialization of algae biofuel.

“The program we have with ExxonMobil is to actually make a bio-crude. This notion of doing things in these large algae arrays that people see huge pictures of — it uses, in my view way too much water, opens to outside contamination,” said Venter. “It’s just not going to get us to where we need to go.”

So, SGI is now engineering synthetic eukaryotic algae that can produce up to 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre, a 5- to 10-fold increase from its natural state. Because there are hundreds of components that convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into hydrocarbons in algae, this increase seems trivial when engineering synthetic algae, according to Venter.

“We need a fundamental change on how we approach all this, and now we have the technology to start to do that,” he said.

But other biofuel researchers don’t believe that genetic engineering will be the quickest route to commercialization.

“There are some serious issues to overcome as the new synthetic algae may be considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) which could require decades of evaluation before it can be deployed into the field. Some countries like Japan and France still will not allow GMO corn or even the products such as oil, starch, corn meal.” said biofuel researcher Randy Ryan.

As assistant director of the Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station, Ryan is developing a system to grow and dry algae for biofuels production with support from the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts. His team has developed the Aquaculture Raceway Integrated Design (ARID) project that seeks to create a prototype for cultivating algae on an agricultural scale.

“Extrapolating from our [first] year’s data set, it is conceivable that we could double algae production, which would translate to 12,000 gallons per year per acre or 35 gallons per day per acre — roughly a barrel of oil, which is 44 gal,” said Ryan.

The ARID project emphasizes temperature control without additional covering, heating, or infrastructure. Instead, to maximize sunlight absorption and heat retention, the design calls for the movement of water from shallow ponds into a deep canal, saving the heat from the sun and allowing algae to maximize metabolic activity.

In the end, Ryan believes that maximizing the growth of algae will lead to the commercialization of algae biofuels. But how quickly that will happen depends on funding for this research.

“There seems to be a push to develop renewable fuels,” Ryan said. “However, the partisan bickering and negative politics in government appear to be undermining the significant advances in biofuels by creating a disruptive environment. It’s discouraging and demoralizes to commercial investors and scientific investigators alike.”