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So that’s what happened to the Synthetic Genomics, Exxon algae fuel deal

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One of the most exciting announcements back in the Summer of 2009 for the biofuel folks, was the much-discussed potentially $600 million deal between upstart startup Synthetic Genomics, led by genome guru Craig Venter, and oil giant Exxon to make algae fuel at commercial scale. While that partnership seemed to strain a bit in late 2011, I’ve never been quite clear on what actually happened to the plans.

But in a detailed Bloomberg article on Chevron’s move away from biofuels, Venter and Synthetic Genomics have finally confirmed that the Exxon-funded research didn’t produce the desired results and was subsequently down graded. The article says that in late 2011 an algae strain that proved promising in the testing greenhouse, didn’t hit its performance milestones in an Exxon pond in Texas.

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As a result, Bloomberg says that Exxon changed the contract to focus on long term research instead of commercial production, and Synthetic Genomics was forced to lay off more than half its staff that were working on biofuel development. Venter also clarified back in late 2011, that the Exxon deal was to research naturally occurring algae cells only (not synthetic ones), and Venter hoped that Exxon would come around to funding the research based on synthetic algae cells.

Venter says that biofuels made from algae that will be able to scale, and compete with oil, will have to be synthesized and will not come from nature. In the Spring of 2010, Venter and his team successfully created the first synthetic bacterial cell, which was controlled completely by a synthetic genome. Alas, perhaps algae fuel won’t be the first application for that ground breaking research.

3 Responses to “So that’s what happened to the Synthetic Genomics, Exxon algae fuel deal”

  1. The Scientist

    The oil industry has to face the historical facts. When crude touched 130.00 a barrel people all over the world suddenly could no longer afford to transport freight. Everyone forgets this so easily. No one knows for sure how much proven reserves are left and that is a very dangerous thing. China and India together will put another 500 million cars on the road in the next 25 years. There are no large oil fields left so we are going to have to go with synthetic oil production.

    This article proves that once again we are all in denial of the inevitable and that is that the price of oil is going to go much higher than 130.00 a barrel maybe closer to 200.00. In order to produce the need level of supply I have no doubts that we can synthesize genetically enhanced algae provided we produce this correctly. First growing algae in a tank is too cheap and wasteful. Spraying cell on large plates and continually infusing them with water, oxygen, concentrated co2, and 24 hour a day artificial sunlight will allow for the creation of so many millions of tons algae every so many hours. You need the right equatorial locations so that other catalysts can be used in the production such as enough humidity in the air and yes enough free sunlight during the day.

    We can generate enough electrical power cleanly to make better cleaner safer burning bio based fuels; however, we are going to have rely on clean energy as a larger catalyst to help with the energy intensive costs. For, example you go to put up a billion windmills and then with all that other energy you put up another two billion windmills. Then there is solar aggregation which can help with extracting large amounts of water out of the air to be put into the molecular mass of the algae. It would be nice if we could easily make the transition to clean energy cars such as electric engines but try replacing all the cars in the world with electric ones even if you could get the battery technology working. There is just no way to do this without making it a gradual one.

    Synthetically created oil will have to be used during this time or we could just park all are cars, trucks, boats, jets and walk to work. In time we will make synthetic oil production cheap and affordable and believe me you can look forward to lower gas prices than today. So do not think for a second we are done producing and using oil based combustion
    engines just yet. We have no other choices left. This is a good thing because it will help usher in more viable alternative such as wind, solar aggregation, and hydrogen production.