As my colleague Craig Venter likes to point out, science is fun. And it’s never more fun than when you can introduce your latest scientific breakthrough to the world.
That’s been our good fortune this week in San Diego at the BIO International Convention. Yesterday, in conjunction with the release of a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Nature Biotechnology, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics, Inc., announced a truly significant development in algae research with the potential to transform energy production from biofuels.
This significant development in our joint research into advanced biofuels involves the modification of an algae strain that more than doubles its oil production without significantly inhibiting the strain’s growth.
Translation: We should be able to get twice as much oil from this algae strain than we previously thought.
One of the chief obstacles facing the adoption of algae as a scalable energy source has been the biofuels industry’s difficulty in producing sufficient volumes. It’s not enough to be able to produce amounts equivalent to a lake’s-worth of oil from algae when global oil consumption is a veritable ocean – 96 million barrels – every day, according to the International Energy Agency.
So if algae biofuels are to make a meaningful dent in global oil consumption, then we eventually will have to produce them in commercial quantities.
We’re by no means there yet, of course, but our breakthrough does potentially put us a step closer to realizing this possibility many years down the road.
The strain of algae at the center of this week’s breakthrough appears to have the ability to produce seven times more energy per acre than corn-based ethanol. Furthermore, this milestone confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source without adverse impacts on climate, land, and water.
It’s been eight years since ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics partnered together to explore the possibilities offered by algae-based biofuels, and it’s been a fruitful collaboration, as this latest announcement shows. Those of us at Synthetic Genomics look forward to many more such breakthroughs – and a lot more fun – in the years to come.
Oliver Fetzer, PhD, MBA is chief executive officer of Synthetic Genomics, Inc.