Exxon-partnered biotech group confident of boom in algae fuel

Production of advanced bio-fuels made from algae could grow rapidly in the near future, according to Synthetic Genomics, the biotech company that has partnered with ExxonMobil to develop the fuel. The two companies said last week that by 2025 they were aiming to set up one or more demonstration plants to produce 10,000 barrels a day of diesel and jet fuel devised from genetically modified algae. Synthetic Genomics argues that scaling up production could be relatively quick.

The aim is to produce bio-fuels that will be cost competitive with conventional oil-based fuels at crude prices of about $60 to $65 a barrel.  Oliver Fetzer, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics, said: “Once we’re past 2025, if our trajectory stays on track, there’s no reason why we would not be able to scale up quickly.” The two companies said there were still many technical challenges to overcome before large-scale production was possible, but they can see a “pathway” to make algae-based fuel a commercial reality. They believe their products could be the first such advanced bio-fuels to go into large-scale production.

Today’s bio-fuels generally come from food crops such as corn and sugar, and so compete for agricultural land and fresh water. Algae can be grown in concrete ponds of salt water, on barren or desert land. Because the algae trap carbon from the air, the forms of diesel and jet fuel they produce have lower net emissions than conventional fuels refined from crude.

While the work on strains of algae continues, chemical engineers will also be looking at two other questions: how to farm algae for the highest yields, and how to process them to deliver usable fuels. The farming research will move to outdoor test pools in California; Mr Fetzer suggests a working production facility might have about 200 pools, each about an acre in area.

Vijay Swarup, vice-president for research and development in Exxon’s research department, said if the genetic editing and farming of the algae went well, processing should be relatively straightforward, thanks to his company’s expertise in refining and petrochemicals production.

“It’s real: we’re not publishing papers. This is not academic research. This is: we’ve got to get here, and we’ve got to get here in a way that we can see line of sight to scalable, affordable, reliable and sustainable fuels.”