Back to the Future All Over Again: ExxonMobil targets algae fuels at scale by 2025, as oil prices rise

May 24, 2018 |

So, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics have announced a new phase in their joint algae biofuel research program that could lead to the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day by 2025.

With that, it feels like the circle has turned again.

Which is to say, West Texas Intermediate has reached $70.68, Brent crude is at $78.76; there’s noise afoot that Saudi Arabia is aiming at $80 oil to boost the Saudi Aramco IPO, some whispers about $100 oil have surfaced at OPIS.

We’re back in some of the same conversations as a decade ago on oil prices and the forces that shape them — with US fracking as a swing producer being a major new element.

And, we’re talkin’ about algae biofuels again. In part because Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil kept on pushing when others abandoned the field. In part because algae economics and technology have changed — and demonstrations of technical competence and partnership announcements have given way to discussions of deploying at scale.

The SGI and Exxon advance in detail

The new phase of research includes an outdoor field study that will grow naturally occurring algae in several contained ponds in California. The research will enable ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics to better understand fundamental engineering parameters including viscosity and flow, which cannot easily be replicated in a lab. The results of this work, the partners say, are important to understand how to scale the technology for potential commercial deployment.

“With the advances in the lab, we’re bringing the engineers on board,” Synthetic Genomics’ algae guru Rob Brown told the Digest. “For now, we want to understand how the wild type performs.”

The work will be done in California’s Imperial Valley, near Calipatria, near the Californian algae mecca named, as fate would have it, Mecca. It’s acre-scale, that facility. Some time ago Craig Venter had purchased an abandoned carbon capture center that in the end became a center for nutraceutical development — a lot more about astaxanthin than carbon capture. The site offers “all the accoutrements” for an algae test.

Will the new high-yield algae survive?

Tossing a whole bunch of algae into a pond that have twice as much oil content as their brethren is like throwing fattened-up salmon to a community of hungry bears. You wonder how long these little fatties will be able to ward off the predators, not to mention the competitors, pests, dust, viruses and what not found in the natural grab-bag known as an outdoor pond.

We hear that Gloria Gaynor’s anthemic “I Will Survive” is a must-have on any algae’s personal playlist. Meanwhile, “Never Can Say Goodbye” fits pretty well on SGI’s and ExxonMobil’s mixtape.

“The good thing,” Brown told us, “is that since we kicked off this project in 2009, robustness has been top of the list along with salinity and the ability to make lipids. What we’ve found is that our strains, even with the barrage of challenges in a pond, are the last man standing in the pond; they are a very good competitor, it’s not like we were developing yeast for a fermenter, these algae have learned to survive different lighting conditions, shading, temperature variability of the seasons.”

So, if the focal point is not survival, what’s on the docket? “It’s productivity,” said Brown, “and how do they ultimately fit with downstream processing — do they process the right way? We are developing the strains but the strains have to enable a process, so as we discover feedback from processing there may be need to modify the phenotype.

“And we’ll need to look across the seasons to understand productivity and also later we’ll have to bring out the GMO algae and get approval from the EPA.”

The fundamental breakthrough

In 2017, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics announced breakthrough research published in Nature Biotechnology that resulted in a modified algae strain that more than doubled oil content without significantly inhibiting growth, a key challenge along the path to commercial scalability.

Global demand for transportation-related energy is projected to increase by about 25 percent through 2040, and accelerating the reduction in emissions from the transportation sector will play a critical role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently at proof of concept scale, at the productivity rates seen under lab conditions, the strain could produce up to 1600 gallons per acre per year of lipids suitable for low-carbon fuels. This is ten times greater than the oil-production rates of any known terrestrial plant that has seen widespread adoption, and double the productivity of the N. gaditana wild-type strain.

Why algae start making more oil in the first place

On the other hand, the ExxonMobil and SGI research teams apparently have been channeling Bananarama’s “More More More”.

For decades, researchers have known that the best way to get algae to produce more lipids is to starve them of nitrogen. Goes the theory, proteins contain nitrogen and lipids do not — so when you limit the available nitrogen, algae make more fats, thereby storing up carbon energy “for another day”, So far, so good. in fact, our friend nanno has been known to make up to 55% oils under certain nitrogen-starvation conditions. 

But here’s the problem. Algae use nitrogen to make enzymes, and they use proteins and enzymes to make fats, and they use nitrogen to make the chlorophyll that allows them to capture the sun’s energy in the first place. 

So, nitrogen starvation results in more lipids but less algae growth — in research we’ve see the gain in lipid share but a loss of productivity. Improvements have been modest in overall oil yield.

The algal lipid trigger

In certain circles, the controlling hypothesis is that there may be an algal lipid trigger out there — so goes the theory, just at that point of nitrogen-starvation where lipid productivity takes off, you study the algae to see what they are up to, find the processes that up-regulate lipid production, and then enhance those. When the algae start the lipid dance, make them dance like crazy.

The interesting result

Following RNAi, algae still probably want to make just as much lipids as before, but can’t go for that, no can do.

But, what if the mechanism that shunts carbon either to protein or lipid production turns out to be genetically subtle and tunable? What if we could find a way to divert the carbon down the lipid-producing pathway, without impacting the delivery of nitrogen for those other critical growth-supporting activities? Steering carbon rather than starving nitrogen?

Turns out, that’s a big part of the SGI / Exxon story. The technique the researchers used was RNA interference, or RNAi.

In biologyese: In this technique, we target what are known as mRNA molecules, using RNA molecules, and we inhibit gene expression or translation.

In English: If you’ve ever been at a dance with a very good-looking prospective partner and suddenly found yourself completely lost for words — that’s not the same biological process but it’s the same result, the algae lose the ability to do something they really want to do.

What’s great about RNAi is that it works a little bit more like a tunable dial than the knock-in/knock-out techniques used in most applications of genetic enhancement.

Back to the pond, with the wild type strain

The research that will take place in this phase where algae is going into the ponds — that’s a naturally occurring strain. So think of a traditional unimproved algae solider like nannochloropsis.

Actually, nannochloropsis gaditana is one of a number of strains that SGI has domesticated and is working to modify — and that makes these wild-type natural strains an excellent model for gaining some understanding of the engineering parameters.

What isn’t being worked on much right now

Today, it’s about strains, and performance in the pond.

How to get the water out of the algae, or get the algae out of the water, how to extract the oils, what to do with the resultant mountain of protein that 10,000 barrels of oil might come paired with, how to do the downstream processing from algae oil to a finished fuel, and where and for how much all of the above will happen — questions abound. But that’s for Exxon’s engineers more than the team of biologists at Exxon and SGI that have been at work. It’s a long road to 2025.

The SGI-Exxon backstory

Since 2009, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics have been partners in researching and developing oil from algae to be used as a renewable, lower-emission alternative to traditional transportation fuels.

We looked at the partnership back in 2010 in The Wild Wild Wet here. And in The Summer of Algae II, here, and in 2014’s State of the Algae Industry: 10 Top-Level commercial leaders look at the path to scale, here.

Also, we looked in depth at the agreements between SGI and Exxon when they were renewed in 2013 here and in 2017 here.

Reaction from the stakeholders

You’ll be happy to know the partners are pleased and delighted.

“Our work with Synthetic Genomics on algae biofuels continues to be an important part of our broader research into lower-emission technologies to help reduce the risk of climate change,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “The new outdoor phase is a critical next step in determining a path toward large-scale, commercial production.”

“We are excited to take this next significant step as we journey together toward a renewable, scalable, and low-carbon biofuel,” said Oliver Fetzer, Ph.D., chief executive officer at Synthetic Genomics. “The progress we are making in the lab toward engineering highly efficient algae strains that convert sunlight and CO2 into renewable high energy density biofuel is exciting and warrants continued research about how our technology will scale. Our outdoor algal facility creates a perfect stepping stone from our labs to the greenhouse and to the outdoors to lay the foundation for a large scale commercial deployment of our technology in the future.”

The Bottom Line

It’s a big step for this partnership to get out of the lab and into the pond, and although rising oil prices have little to do with it, the timing of rising oil prices reminds us why alternative fuels remain a priority, even for petroleum companies. Soaring energy prices lead consumers to abandon internal-combustion engines faster than you can say “crumbling oil major stock price”.

2025 is almost an unimaginable distance for consumers and feels like the day after tomorrow for engineers. It will be some time before we come closer and clearer on the real commercial prospects. But “10000 barrels a day” and “2025”, that’s new language from this partnership, and underline that twice in your mind because neither of these parties, in their algae pursuits, have been noted as hype-kings.

Of course, Exxon has run one heck of a lot of television commercials around its work in algae, prompting one friend of the Digest to suggest that they spent more on the commercials than the algae. That’s funny but unfair, yet it’s good news to see some more specific language around dates and scale, even if 2025 feels miles away to many, and even if the prospect of 10,000 barrels per day of algae-based fuel won’t exactly knock Saudi Aramco’s IPO into a tailspin.

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