ExxonMobil in algae technology win

[USA] ExxonMobil and Californian biofuels partner Synthetic Genomics have claimed a breakthrough in joint research that appears to allow the modification of an algae strain to more than double its oil content without substantially inhibiting growth.

Using advanced cell engineering technologies the research team modified an algae strain to enhance the algae’s oil content from 20% to more than 40%.

Lead authors Imad Ajjawi and Eric Moellering of Synthetic Genomics published their research in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology overnight.

Researchers at SG’s laboratory in La Jolla discovered the new process for increasing oil production by identifying a genetic switch that could be fine-tuned to regulate the conversion of carbon to oil in the algae species, Nannochloropsis gaditana.

The team established a proof-of-concept approach that resulted in the algae doubling its lipid fraction of cellular carbon compared to the parent – while sustaining growth.

“This key milestone in our advanced biofuels program confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source with a corresponding positive contribution to our environment,” ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company vice president for research and development Vijay Swarup.

Algae is considered an ideal renewable source of biofuels because it is hardy, fast growing, and does not compete with food crops such as corn or sugars.

“The major inputs for phototropic algae production are sunlight and carbon dioxide, two resources that are abundant, sustainable and free,” SG CEO Oliver Fetzer said.

Algae researchers have been hindered for the past decade in developing a strain that is high in oil content and grows quickly – two critical characteristics for scalable and cost-efficient oil production.

Slower growth has been an adverse effect of previous attempts to increase algae oil production volume.

A key objective of the ExxonMobil collaboration has been to increase the lipid content of algae while decreasing the starch and protein components without inhibiting the algae’s growth.

Limiting availability of nutrients such as nitrogen is one way to increase oil production in algae, but it can also dramatically inhibit or even stop photosynthesis, stunting algae growth and ultimately the volume of oil produced.

The ability to sustain growth while increasing oil content is an important advance.

Algae has other advantages over traditional biofuels because it can grow in salt water and thrive in harsh environmental conditions, therefore limiting stress on food and fresh water supplies.

Oil from algae can also potentially be processed in conventional refineries, producing fuels no different from convenient, energy-dense diesel. It also holds promise as a potential feedstock for chemical manufacturing.

SG said it had made significant advances over the last several years, and it was convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source.

The pair has been working together since 2009 on the alternative transportation fuel, although even with today’s apparent breakthrough they warn the technology is still many years from potentially reaching the commercial market because of a need to continue testing and analyses.

Biofuels are competing with electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles to be the transportation sources of the future.

Two Australian vehicle fleet conferences in May pointed electric vehicles and alternative fuels such as hydrogen being the next big thing for vehicle transport in Australia.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency recently announced that it would be supporting the uptake of EVs in Australia.

Globally, in the next 12 months almost one million electric vehicles are projected to be sold, with more than $50 billion invested in the industry over the last 10 years, but the Electric Vehicle Council says there are barriers to their uptake in Australia, such as a lack of vehicle emission standards or short-term incentives.

Adelaide City Council Lord Mayor Martin Haese recently gained the support of the Australian Local Government Association for a national approach to stimulate the market.

Haese said greater sales volumes would drive prices downward, reduce emissions and reduce motoring costs for commuters.

A number of Asian car makers, such as Hyundai, are also pushing hydrogen power, and Australian lignite from the Latrobe Valley is set to be part of a study to support Japanese and South Korea car market.

Biofuels in Australia experienced a small boom a decade ago, and Beach Energy even got involved in one trial on the Cooper Basin for an algae technology.

However, after a large build-out of earlier generation biofuels production has been declining, although blended fuels remain on offer throughout the nation.
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