ExxonMobil Scientists Figured Out How to Turn Algae Into Biofuel

Scientist J. Craig Venter just helped ExxonMobil make a biofuel breakthrough, with potentially enormous implications.

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Even though it's regarded as a potentially more sustainable source of biofuel than corn or soybeans, natural algae have one or two issues that prevent it from being a feasible fuel source. Now, following seven years of development with Synthetic Genomics Inc., ExxonMobile has a modified strain of the organism that just might work. 

Chief among the issues that have blocked out algae for biofuel purposes is that the ideal strain should produce plenty of fat while reproducing rapidly enough that it can grow quickly. Those two attributes never seem to go hand-in-hand with naturally-occurring strains, ruling algae out as a workable source of biofuel until science could produce a strain with the proper balance of productive traits. At last, it seems scientists at the two companies might be on the brink of success. Bloomberg reports that scientist J. Craig Venter, who co-founded Synthetic Genomics in 2005, has helped ExxonMobil modify an algae strain to more than double its lipid content. Exxon and SGI announced the breakthrough at the BIO International Convention in San Diego last week.

The modified strain ended up being about 40 percent oil, compared to the 10 or 15 percent that would otherwise have been yielded in the same environment.

Biofuels could contribute in a big way to humankind's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions because they are theoretically carbon neutral, meaning that when burned, they release only as much carbon as the organic source consumed while growing. Algae represent a promising source of biofuel as it yields more energy per acreage than alternatives, and can grow in harsh conditions—even on saltwater.

"To my knowledge, no other group has achieved this level of lipid production by modifying algae, and there’s no algae in production that has anything like this level," Venter told Bloomberg. The modified strain is Exxon's and SGI's "first super-strong indication that there is a path to getting to where we need to go."

Even after this major development, algae-sourced biofuels are still likely decades away from becoming commercially viable, so don't go expecting to see it at the pump anytime soon.