Patrick Hanks: Algae engineer

Behind the energy

If you had told me a few years ago that one day I’d be farming algae with the hope of creating a reliable, low-emission energy source, I probably would have been a little skeptical. But that’s exactly what I do.

I’m a chemical engineer, and my job, like every engineer, is to solve problems for a better future.

In a way, you could say my passion for problem solving runs in the family. Growing up I was surrounded by engineers, including my father and grandfather. My family moved around a lot when I was young because of my dad’s work, and I even spent two years of grade school in the U.K. That problem-solving spirit continues with my eight-year-old daughter who invented and drew her very own version of a net that pulls algae out of the water.

Just about every month, I travel to the desert of Imperial Valley, California, where massive ponds full of bright green algae dot the vast landscape. My work has also brought me to exotic locations like India and Australia, where I’ve explored biofuel opportunities.

For the past year and a half, my work has focused on how to most effectively and efficiently scale up algae production to create low-emission biofuel. My team at ExxonMobil and our partners at Synthetic Genomics, Inc. are working toward the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuels a day by 2025. We know biofuel can be extracted from algae in small lab samples, but the challenge is scaling it so enough energy is created to help meet the world’s transportation needs with fewer carbon dioxide emissions.

A huge number of variables – from water pH levels to the design and size of the ponds – need to be unraveled. I got my Ph.D. in chemical engineering because I wanted to solve the tough problems and watch my work come to life. Problems this complex mean plenty of trial and error, a fundamental part of the scientific process. In my mind, finding out what doesn’t work just narrows down the possibilities of what does.

If we successfully boost algae production so that it becomes a viable energy source, my hope is that one day my daughter might fly on an airplane powered by algae. Our goal is ambitious, but one worth solving.

Tags:   algae biofuelchemical engineerSGI
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