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Summary:

Craig Venter, considered to be the father of genomics and the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, said there’s a fundamental problem with algae fuel at the Wall Street Journal’s Eco:nomics conference on Thursday: in his view if algae fuel companies can’t generate billions of […]

Craig Venter, considered to be the father of genomics and the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, said there’s a fundamental problem with algae fuel at the Wall Street Journal’s Eco:nomics conference on Thursday: in his view if algae fuel companies can’t generate billions of gallons of fuel then people are “just playing” and “wasting investors money.”

In other words the algae companies need to be able to reach the scale at which the oil companies currently operate to be competitive. “That’s the real bugaboo for everybody,” said Venter. To address that hurdle, last July Synthetic Genomics announced that it was partnering with ExxonMobil on a $600 million algae biofuels program.

Synthetic Genomics is different than many of the algae fuel companies out there — Venter estimated there are 200 or so — because Synthetic Genomics is looking to use its synthetic genetic processes to tweak algae and other microorganisms to create synthetic super bugs that can crank out as much fuel as possible. Such genetically-altered bugs could consume CO2 and create synthetic hydro-carbons that could be a fuel replacement.

Venter said the synthetic genomic process could one day fundamentally change not just fuel and transportation, but food supply, medicine, and clean water. Venter and his crew at the J. Craig Venter Institute have already created a completely synthetic bacterial genome, which they claimed back in 2008 was the largest man-made DNA structure ever. Now Venter and the researchers are “extremely close” to activating the synthetic bacteria chromosome in a new cell which would make “the first synthetic species,” and will be their “proof of concept,” as Venter put it at the conference. That’s some crazy stuff.

In the algae fuel world Venter said he didn’t think the process had much competition. But there are other startups working on synthetic biology including Amyris Biotechnologies, and LS9.

Biofuel firms are well aware of their “scaling issue” and, like Synthetic Genomics, are turning to the big oil and gas giants for partnerships. The CEO of algae fuel startup Solazyme, Jonathan Wolfson, told me last year that “We will likely commercialize our technology with a big oil partner. It’s delusional to think that companies with that amount of scale and trillions of dollars of infrastructure won’t play a key role.” Solazyme has a development deal with oil giant Chevron. Amyris has formed a joint venture called Crystalsev, in conjunction with Santelisa Vale, Brazil’s second-largest sugar grower, and the jv aims to produce 200 million gallons of fuel a year by 2011 at several of its existing ethanol plants at a price of less than $2 a gallon.

Algae fuel player Sapphire Energy has said that it is ramping up its production estimates to 1 million gallons of algae-based diesel and jet fuel per year by 2011, 100 million gallons per year by 2018, and 1 billion gallons per year by 2025.

Image courtesy of NREL.

  1. Venter’s right about scale.

    But raising algae is more than just about the fuel. Whether open pond, photobioreactors, or closed systems, along with “oil” you also produce lots of dead algae. Even for the best systems the margins are tight.

    A full scale open pond algae farm should be at least 1,000 acres. The “diesel” produced could cost slightly under $2.00/gal delivered to the “rack” (the place where petroleum products are stuffed into their tankers for delivery). This compares to about $2.00/gal that is the current cost for the refiners to produced diesel (from the most recent EIA figures). The cost (allocated) of the left over dead algae is about $600/metric ton, and as either animal feed (protein) or as an organic fertilizer you can get over $1,000/metric ton. The amount of oil versus “dead algae” will vary depending on the kind of algae you grow (or in Synthetic Genomics’ case the algae you build).

    And just one more thing…

    I’m glad that Venter and company have finally moved from being agnostic to being believers in algae. Thanks Exxon!

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    1. Brad Bartilson Friday, March 5, 2010

      Note that what EIA provides is a % breakdown of the PRICE at the pump. The $2/gallon is what’s left for the refiners to make money on, so that includes their profit as well as their cost to produce.

      Cows and chickens don’t like algae meal…many have tried. Better to avert byproducts.

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    2. Alex from Ukraine Saturday, March 6, 2010

      Youa rigt. I hav inspired to produse aglae “spirulina platensis” in photobioreactors (closed sistems). This is a Great idea, batch is it stupped idea.

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  2. [...] This post on earth2tech.com says Craig Venter, the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, made the remarks at the Wall Street Journal’s Economics conference this week: [...]

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  3. [...] This post on earth2tech.com says Craig Venter, the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, made the remarks at the Wall Street Journal’s Economics conference this week: [...]

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  4. Aglae is a pipe dream. Direct production of ethanol or diesel antecedents will be the only game in town in five years. With synthetic bacteria, here are no obvious barriers to scale production, even all the way up to billions of gallons a year.

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  5. [...] Craig Venter: Without Scale, Algae Fuel Companies “Playing” [...]

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  6. Algae researchers have spent over $2.5 billion dollars in grants (taxpayer money) and have not commercialized anything. All ponds have contamination issues and will never be used for industrial scale up. We are wasting money on ponds that will never work.

    The commercial scale vertical PBR’s will be used for industrial growing of algae. They have very little contamination if any and are currently generating almost 500,000 gallons per acre per year in algae biomass.

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  7. [...] are so good at producing oil from sunlight and carbon dioxide that there are, by some accounts, as many as 200 companies trying to make biofuels from algae. Some are obscure, little more than a [...]

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  8. [...] Comments          0 As Synthetic Genomics founder and geneticist guru Craig Venter said recently, if biofuel companies don’t generate billions of gallons of fuel then they’re just [...]

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  9. [...] Venter is well aware — and has repeatedly stated — the major hurdle for his algae fuel project will be scale. If algae fuel companies can’t [...]

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  10. [...] founder (and artificial life creator) Craig Venter put it earlier this year, biofuel companies are “just playing” and “wasting investors’ money” unless they can generate billions of gallons of fuel (Venter referred in his comments specifically [...]

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