Algae is an R&D wonder that, in the lab, has been shown to efficiently store energy. But can it be scaled into a viable commercial product?
Mention algae to most people and their thoughts turn to the scum in fish tanks or ponds. But while algae may be a nuisance to some, to the scientists at ExxonMobil it’s cutting-edge stuff. Could algae potentially transform how we power cars, planes, basically any transportation device that uses an internal combustion engine?
Low emission and ready to use
Using algae to produce next-generation biofuels holds some obvious benefits. Algae require carbon dioxide in order to grow. A 2012 study by ExxonMobil and research partners Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that commercial-grade diesel refined from algae oils produces half as much greenhouse gas emissions over its lifecycle compared to petroleum products.
As well as having lower emissions, algae don’t stress global food or freshwater supplies. Algae can be grown using only saltwater. Traditional ethanol, by comparison, diverts food crops, such as corn, to energy production, and requires large volumes of fresh water.
Finally, and most critically, the oils produced from algae can potentially be processed in conventional refineries, producing fuels no different from the gasoline or diesel consumers fill up with at the pump.
These were some of the factors that motivated ExxonMobil’s 2009 research partnership with SGI, the Southern California biofuel startup founded by geneticist J. Craig Venter.
While immensely promising, algal biofuels are still very much “next generation.” Unlike other clean transportation fuels, such as natural gas, which already power some trucks and bus fleets, motor fuels distilled from algae are still many years from potentially hitting the commercial market.
“The challenge,” explained Vijay Swarup, vice president of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, “is to now find and develop algae that can produce bio-oils at scale on a cost-efficient basis.”
Scaling algae production
Scientists are looking to develop super algae strains that can efficiently capture and store solar energy. The more energy algae captures, the more oil or lipids can be harvested and converted into biofuel.
“Algal genetics is a challenging field of research,” explained Kelsey McNeely, one of the ExxonMobil scientists researching these super algae strands. “What SGI has provided is the tool kit to modify algae so we can eventually make and extract more oil.”
The effort is comprehensive, involving in-house scientists as well as outside labs at a number of U.S. universities.
What works well in the small confines of the lab doesn’t automatically work on an industrial scale. Researchers trying to figure out how to take algae production from the petri dish or the pond to the refinery know that is something much easier said than done.
As part of this effort to scale algae production, last fall ExxonMobil struck a partnership with a research lab overseen by Michigan State University Professor David Kramer. Kramer and his team are working on methods to develop algal strains that can efficiently store energy compounds under the most challenging industrial conditions.
“There are many different strains of algae that have adapted to work well in different environments,” Kramer said. “What we want to do is figure out how they are able to do this and what genes are responsible. With this knowledge, we can potentially combine strains to make strains that are more efficient even under harsh conditions.”