The next phase of algae biofuels

When we made the announcement last year that we had teamed with Synthetic Genomics Inc. to research biofuels from algae, we raised a lot of eyebrows. Many applauded our investment. Some were skeptical about our commitment.

One year has passed, and I’m excited to say we’re entering the next phase of our program. Today, we announced the opening of a new state-of-the-art greenhouse facility at the SGI headquarters in La Jolla, Calif.  The greenhouse will be home to the next level of research and testing in our algae biofuels program.  SGI and ExxonMobil researchers are already using the facility to test whether large-scale quantities of affordable fuel can be produced from algae.

The greenhouse is an important component of the program. It gives researchers more realistic conditions for algae production, compared to an indoor lab. In the greenhouse, scientists will look at different growth systems for algae, such as open ponds and closed photobioreactors. They will also compare different types of algae, including both natural and engineered strains, and test them in varying light levels and temperature conditions to find the ones that are most productive. And, they will research other aspects of the algae fuel production process, including harvesting and bio-oil recovery operations. (Our algae brochure has an overview of the production process if you’re interested.)

Of course, this research won’t happen overnight. It could take as long as 10 years for algae biofuels to potentially reach the scale needed to make an impact on fuel supplies. In the meantime, we’ll continue to scale up our facilities and research – including a larger, outdoor test facility anticipated in 2011 – to test this promising alternative fuel source that could help meet our growing energy needs.

To learn more about the greenhouse and the progress we’ve made in the past year, check out our press release. You can also read a Dow Jones article about the greenhouse opening here.


28 Comments

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  1. Thomas Yellich says:

    I live in Carlsbad, just North of La Jolla and have a 1998 Hummer H-1 converted for Bio-fuels. I would be interested to see if your reseach team wanted to use a real vehicle to test your algae Biofuel out on the road in normal driving conditions?
    I would like to get involved.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Thomas, thanks for your offer. As you can imagine, this is a long-term effort for us involving several years of R&D. At this stage we’re evaluating the most productive strains of algae and the most efficient production methods in the greenhouse research facility that we and our partner Synthetic Genomics Inc. opened earlier this summer. We are encouraged by the progress we’re making and will keep readers posted on our progress. Thanks for your offer on the vehicle, but we’re still in the core research phase at this point.

  2. Jeffry Swertfeger says:

    We are involved in the manufacturing of garbage trucks and as such, I am very interested to know if you have done any work relating to bioreactors and/or the use of enzymes to speed up the process of waste-to-fuel in landfills? We are looking to partner with a leading research organization in this field. Any help and/or direction would be fantastic.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Jeffry, thanks for your comment. We think waste-to-fuel technology could be an important element in the portfolio of technologies that will be needed to address growing energy needs. That being said, we’re targeting our efforts towards research that best leverages our expertise and technology focus areas – in projects such as advanced fuels, biofuels from algae and hydrogen fuel cells. Thanks for getting in touch.

  3. Earnest Arey says:

    I have worked out a way to use the raw oils directly without any further processing by burning them in SMALL MHD generators. The generator is small enough to condense out all of the salts with the water produced from combustion. Hence no actual release of anything other than the carbon dioxide and some water vapor. Can’t get any cleaner than that for transportation applications. The salt water is captured and returned to the grower for re-use since the algae requires the salts anyway. There are several important modifications to standard continous MHD generators to raise the efficiency from the 50% base line to above 75% thermal efficiency.

  4. Robert Goldschmidt says:

    Of course, it is in Exxon Mobile’s best interest to come up with a synthetic fuel to fill their distribution system. Here are a couple of thoughts you might want to consider.

    What if you designed your algae to maximize energy storage produced rather than a petroleum-like product? This could be used to feed electric power generating stations to charge electric vehicles. How would the overall efficiency in terms of vehicle miles per pound of algae compare?

    Also, when you look at the financial feasibility of your development, please consider that current oil production has the biggest subsidy by far of any US industry — the $500+ billion a year spent by our military to secure the US imported oil supply. This cost does not appear at the pump and is subsidized by US taxpayers.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Robert, you’re right in that the distribution system is one of the key factors that make algae-based biofuels attractive. But it’s not just ExxonMobil’s distribution system we’re dealing with. Transportation systems in the U.S. and abroad are made possible by an extensive infrastructure of refineries, pipelines and fueling stations that have been built over the course of decades. To do as you suggest would require building an entirely new fueling infrastructure, in addition to overhauling the global vehicle fleet of about 800 million cars and other light duty vehicles — at enormous taxpayer and/or consumer expense. Algae-based biofuels, on the other hand, would not require an overhaul of the existing system or vehicle fleet. It’s still a work in progress, but we think there is potential for this alternative fuel.

  5. Taylor Casey says:

    I am a current high school student who is writing a paper for biology class on new developments with biofuels. I was wondering if you could answer a questions I have about your algae biofuel research. I am slightly confused as to how exactly energy is harvested from the algae and furthermore how much of an impact on humanity this new biofuel can have. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Taylor, thanks for your comment. To address your first question, certain species of algae produce bio-oils through photosynthesis. The bio-oil can be recovered from the algae and processed in existing refineries – a process similar to how we currently refine crude oil into petroleum products. The resulting biofuels have molecular structures akin to the petroleum and refined products we use today, which means the biofuels are compatible with existing transportation technology and infrastructure, such as pipelines, fuel terminals and gas stations.

      We see the potential impact to be significant. Not only can algae be grown using land and water unsuitable for crop plant or food production, but algae also consume carbon dioxide as they grow. If our research is successful, bio-oils from photosynthetic algae could be used to manufacture a full range of transportation fuels suitable for vehicles on the road today.

      Hope this helps.

  6. Brad Klemm says:

    I’ve got a question regarding terminology. You refer to the technology as “algae biofuels,” but in the common commercial and elsewhere the supposed algae are denoted as “blue-green algae” which are, of course, prokaryotic and therefore not really algae (more appropriately known as “cyanobacteria”). Are actual algae being used and the commercial just used a more-widely known name for the label, or are you actually using prokaryotes instead of algae in the process? Thanks in advance for the clarification.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Brad, thanks for your comment. I asked our experts in our research department to assist with a response. As you may know, the world contains a great diversity of algae species. There are estimates of tens of thousands to millions of separate species of algae. These algae are classified as prokaryotes, which include the mentioned blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), or eukaryotes. ExxonMobil is conducting research with microalgae (algae so small that they cannot be seen with the human eye) from all algae classifications to determine what species have the highest potential for the production of next-generation biofuels.

  7. patrick womack says:

    I know you are trying to develop a algae farm that will be able to produce the algae/vegi oil you need for processing however I may have available a very good source of algae and am trying to find out if anyone is looking to accept crops from outside sources. Obviously many different crops are being farmed and sold to processors but algae appears to not have a direct market yet. Is Exxon or another company you may know receiving algae as a crop source for fuel processing?

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Thanks for your question. At this stage we have the necessary quantities of algae for research purposes, so I don’t anticipate a need for further supplies in the near term.

  8. Ronny Collins says:

    My thoughts on the cost of producing algae as a renewable fuel source
    Everyone seems to only discuss the price, and the energy it would take to produce fuel from algae. I may be incorrect but, for lack of a better term “they” seem to mention only one product in their discussions I.E. bio-diesel production.
    I have a problem with this because there are several other very useful byproducts, I never hear mentioned in single discussions. I think these other products would offset the price of producing bio fuel. Once the oil is extracted from the algae there are still starches, which could be used to create ethanol, glycerin (a by product of the bio-diesel, called transesertification). Cellulose, and possibly methanol. As you know the ethanol could be used for the purpose of gasoline. Glycerin has about 1700 uses. Cellulose can be used to make plastics, or could be burned to create methanol (destructive distillation of cellulose), it would produce carbon dioxide to feed the algae, and the heat produced could be used to dry out the algae for it’s processing, also the ashes can be used to produce lye, use in the bio-diesel process. Not to mention the positive impact on the environment, removal of green house gasses, removal of water contamination, less land use, and being carbon dioxide neutral Excreta…
    One of the websites I have read “vertigro” says they can produce 100,000 gallons of bio-diesel per archer/year using a closed loop system. This makes sense to me, because of the problems associated with open ponds, and the matter of surface area (in a pond light only travels a few inches under the surface of the water). If this is true, and that much fuel could be produced, I would think you could use some… read more »

    …of the fuel, or some of the byproducts produced to run some form of generators to power plant operations.
    In my mind, it seems this would be all self sustaining not requiring an outside power source once it got into production. With all this; I can not see why the cost would be so high to produce bio fuel from algae, I have heard prices where anywhere from $4.00 to $33.00 per gallon. In my opinion these are just excuses nothing more. I don‘t see where these prices come from, I haven‘t seen, any facts supporting these statements (no data), or anything to justify these costs. In my opinion other than making up the cost to build the facility all at once.
    One of the stories from Exxon, I have read says that it costs $36,000,000.00 on average to drill an oil well, but pump costs for gasoline stay around $3.00 a gallon, I think that kind of money wouldn’t be required to build and operate a bio fuel facility, not even close.
    I just can‘t get my head wrapped around it. This is an example, I have read that on average a 20kw generator at full load uses about 1.6 gallons of fuel per hour this is about 14,016 gallons of fuel per year, that is running 24 hours a day. I believe a generator of that size is more than sufficient to run a small plant.
    This interests me and I have done quit a bit of research on the subject. I would like to build a small scale bio-fuel plant myself but unfortunately I don’t have the means, mainly financially, but I would like be involved.

  9. Michael Wallace says:

    I’m writing a speech on algae fuels for FFA. I had two questions: 1) How large (acres preferably, but miles work too) is the facility? 2) I know the oil can be used in place of diesel, but can the oil be supplemented/altered for use in gas engines?

  10. Maureen Meserve says:

    I have heard a lot about biofuels from algae not being ready because the focus is in scaling up to commercial production rates. I am interested in small-scale biofuel production, in other words, producing just enough for my own needs. Is the technology currently available for small-scale production? If so, how do I access that information?
    Thanks

  11. john thaller says:

    Ken, I think we are moving way to slow on algae in general, nothing against your research or anyone else’s but still too slow. I have been reading about algae fuel for a decade now, all saying the same, maybe tomorrow.

    Anyway, best of luck. I wish I could get involved in the technology scale up. This would be exciting. I am a retired ChemE, but wish there was some why I could get involved. I would do work for free if it meant we could advance our schedule.

    • Tim Liebert says:

      Being a chemical engineer, I encourage you to spend about an hour to go through the simple calculations of the area required to produce x amount of Glucose. Any capable high school science student can do it. If you perform this calculation for the mid US average photon energy received that is usable by plants, and use a reasonable value for the cost of algae growing facilities, you will find an astronomical cost for fuel from algae. Exxon know this, but it is good public relations to continue promoting this research.

      Tim Liebert, P.E. Retired Chemical Engineering

  12. Robert Gard says:

    Ken, do you foresee any problems with containing GM algae? The potential for strains of synthetic algae (genetically modified for rapid growth and high oil content) escaping large scale growing and processing plants into the natural environment would appear to be a concern. Surely this could result in algal blooms occuring in rivers and lakes that wouldn’t normally support them. Is the potential risk of environmental damage being addressed through your research program?

    • Mitchell Brown says:

      Robert, Ive read somewhere that GM algae strains can have a suicide gene if they leak out into the environment.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Robert – Thanks for your comment. We and SGI have developed strict protocols for the treatment and handling of algae strains as part of our research projects. These include measures to ensure proper containment and disposal. Ken.

  13. Mitchell Brown says:

    Ken, My name is Mitchell and I am very excited about the algae biofuels. I have three questions. 1: I have 2 compact utility tractors which I already run on B20 biodiesel, and Generally (iN my opinion) anything over B20 requires certain engine modifications (such as fuel liners). I read somewhere on the 30 page outlook to 2030 that algae biodiesel can be run without any engine modifications, is this true? 2: When do you think algaie biodiesel will become commercially available? and 3: In 100% your opinion, do you think that eventually (keyword) algae biofuels would completely be able to replace our dependance on fossil fuels?

    Thank you for your time, I really appreaciate it :).

    Mitchell.

    • Bill Page says:

      Ken and all readers!

      The ability to commercially produce Oil from Algae along with many bi-products already exists and the crude oil production cost is less than $.75 cents per gallon. We’ve already done it more than 25 times. We just need the ability to refine it and that is controlled by the oil companies. The technology already exists to commercially to grow it, harvest it, extract it. It can be done outside right in our own back yard.

      On less than 1000 acres and less than 1 billion dollars we can produce 1 million gallons a day. Due the math for 10,000 acres or 100,000 acres or 1 million acres. A renewable energy problem solved! Just need someone to see it to believe it.

      Thanks

      Bill

      • Dennis Robinson says:

        I am very happy to hear of your success and I would be extremely interested to learn specifics regarding what you speak of. We have worked on the topic of Biodiesel from Algae for many years now and would really like to learn from your experiences please.

        One thought regarding processing; regardless of feedstock used for Biodiesel a tremendous reduction in final cost can be achieved in all cases by locating multiple smaller processing facilities at or extremely close to the feed stock source as opposed to attempting to process huge amounts at the equivalent of today’s giant petroleum refineries.

        The amounts of acreage and water required to make any meaningful impact upon the massive volume of crude oil that we use in diesel alone just doesn’t exist in Industrial sized tracts. I am not certain that it exists even with 1,000′s of small tracts, but possibly.

        If small scale refineries can be built cost effectively for $5,000,000 – $50,000,000 and located strategically at or near algae farms to minimize transportation cost etc it could prove to be feasible.

        The reality it seems to me is that today with petro diesel available even at inflated prices at the pump, bio just does not seem all that attractive. When the flow of crude suffers large scale or even small scale interruption, then we have a new day and a new set of dynamics.

        Thank You,
        Dennis

        • Bill Page says:

          Dennis, How would I contact you to go over what we can do and the amount of proof we have with our IP?

          Bill

      • W Bostick says:

        How do you “harvest” or extract the oil from the algae? I’ve always heard that is the 400 lb. gorilla in the room. I’m sure that if you provide extracted oil for $0.75/ gal. or $42.00 a barrel there would be people standing in line for it. As to getting the raw cyanobacteria (green algae) there are millions of tons in lakes that people are spending fortunes trying to get rid of. Something doesn’t add up !

  14. Calvin Lenhart says:

    I understand that other algae research has also gone into areas of deeling with waste CO2. That is, waste CO2 produed by the burning of fossil fuels could be cleaned up by algae. Is any of you biofuels research aligned with the idea of feeding the algae with waste CO2?

  15. roy sagarin says:

    Consider Salix grow products for creating biomass!

  16. Thomas Yellich says:

    I live in Carlsbad, just North of La Jolla and have a 1998 Hummer H-1 converted for Bio-fuels. I would be interested to see if your reseach team wanted to use a real vehicle to test your algae Biofuel out on the road in normal driving conditions?
    I would like to get involved.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Thomas, thanks for your offer. As you can imagine, this is a long-term effort for us involving several years of R&D. At this stage we’re evaluating the most productive strains of algae and the most efficient production methods in the greenhouse research facility that we and our partner Synthetic Genomics Inc. opened earlier this summer. We are encouraged by the progress we’re making and will keep readers posted on our progress. Thanks for your offer on the vehicle, but we’re still in the core research phase at this point.

  17. Jeffry Swertfeger says:

    We are involved in the manufacturing of garbage trucks and as such, I am very interested to know if you have done any work relating to bioreactors and/or the use of enzymes to speed up the process of waste-to-fuel in landfills? We are looking to partner with a leading research organization in this field. Any help and/or direction would be fantastic.

    • Ken Cohen says:

      Jeffry, thanks for your comment. We think waste-to-fuel technology could be an important element in the portfolio of technologies that will be needed to address growing energy needs. That being said, we’re targeting our efforts towards research that best leverages our expertise and technology focus areas – in projects such as advanced fuels, biofuels from algae and hydrogen fuel cells. Thanks for getting in touch.

  18. Earnest Arey says:

    I have worked out a way to use the raw oils directly without any further processing by burning them in SMALL MHD generators. The generator is small enough to condense out all of the salts with the water produced from combustion. Hence no actual release of anything other than the carbon dioxide and some water vapor. Can’t get any cleaner than that for transportation applications. The salt water is captured and returned to the grower for re-use since the algae requires the salts anyway. There are several important modifications to standard continous MHD generators to raise the efficiency from the 50% base line to above 75% thermal efficiency.