ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Open Greenhouse for Algae Biofuels Development

San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics and Texas-based ExxonMobil celebrated the first anniversary of their strategic alliance today with the official opening of a greenhouse for growing and testing algae that could someday replace crude oil in the production of diesel and other fuels.

On this day last year, ExxonMobil announced plans to spend at least $600 million to develop next-generation transportation fuels from algae—a renewable resource—with $300 million directed to Synthetic Genomics, a five-year-old startup that has assembled an all-star roster of biologists. The founders include CEO J. Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer, Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith, and Juan Enriquez of Boston’s Excel Venture Management.

The greenhouse, near Synthetic Genomics’ headquarters atop San Diego’s Torrey Pines Mesa represents the next step in a 1,000-mile journey to algae-based fuel production, figuratively speaking. The greenhouse is intended to serve as a facility bathed in real sunlight (instead of indoor laboratory lighting), where scientists can work to identify—or genetically engineer—the particular algae that is best-suited to serve as a biological feedstock in the existing fuel production infrastructure. The next major milestone in the program would be establishing an outdoor test facility, a step the partners would likely announce about this time next year.

“I like to think of this greenhouse as sort of a halfway house,” Venter told a small crowd of dignitaries and journalists who gathered for the event under an intense Southern California sun. “Most of what you hear in algae research happens in the research laboratory. But things don’t always translate well out from the laboratory bench to the scale that we need here, of literally billions of gallons of fuel if this is going to have any impact at all on shifting the CO2 levels or coming up with alternate sources of energy.”

Algae Synthetic GenomicsGrowing algae in the greenhouse requires only sunlight, “which we have in abundance here today,” and carbon dioxide, Venter said. Synthetic Genomics scientists are working with various types of both cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) and eukaryotes. Promising batches begin in small glass flasks and are transferred in steps to larger containers, including 8-liter and 100-liter plastic bags (also known as photobioreactors) that hang on racks in the greenhouse. Algae also are grown in oval, raceway-like ponds stirred by paddlewheels.

One surprising detail that Venter disclosed: All the algae under cultivation in Synthetic Genomics’ greenhouse are grown in saltwater taken from the Pacific Ocean, off the end of a pier near La Jolla. Algae thrives in both fresh water and saltwater, but Venter says he does not want to develop a process that takes agricultural resources by using fresh water. “Fuel cannot compete … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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