ExxonMobil, Synthetic Genomics achieve major breakthrough in algae biofuel

ExxonMobil, Synthetic Genomics achieve major breakthrough in algae biofuel

7:07 AM, 22nd June 2017
Algae-potential sustainable fuel option. (File photo)
Algae has been regarded as a potential sustainable fuel option. (File photo)

IRVING/ LA JOLLA, US: ExxonMobil Corporation with research partner Synthetic Genomics Inc has reported a breakthrough in advanced algae biofuels. They have successfully modified algae strain that more than doubled its oil content without significantly inhibiting the strain’s growth.

Using advanced cell engineering technologies at Synthetic Genomics, the ExxonMobil-Synthetic Genomics research team modified an algae strain to enhance the algae’s oil content from 20 percent to more than 40 percent.

The research is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology by lead authors Imad Ajjawi and Eric Moellering of Synthetic Genomics.

Researchers at Synthetic Genomics’ laboratory discovered a new process for increasing oil production by identifying a genetic switch that could be fine-tuned to regulate the conversion of carbon to oil in the algae species, Nannochloropsis gaditana.

The team established a proof-of-concept approach that resulted in the algae doubling its lipid fraction of cellular carbon compared to the parent – while sustaining growth.

Algae has been regarded as a potential sustainable fuel option, but researchers have been hindered for the past decade in developing a strain that is high in oil content and grows quickly – two critical characteristics for scalable and cost-efficient oil production. Slower growth has been an adverse effect of previous attempts to increase algae oil production volume.

The companies have been jointly researching and developing oil from algae for use as a renewable, lower-emission alternative to traditional transportation fuels since launching the program in 2009.

 A key objective of the ExxonMobil-Synthetic Genomics collaboration has been to increase the lipid content of algae while decreasing the starch and protein components without inhibiting the algae’s growth. Limiting the availability of nutrients such as nitrogen is one way to increase oil production in algae, but it can also dramatically inhibit or even stop photosynthesis, stunting algae growth and ultimately the volume of oil produced.

The ability to sustain growth while increasing oil content is an important advance. Algae has other advantages over traditional biofuels because it can grow in salt water and thrive in harsh environmental conditions, therefore limiting stress on food and fresh water supplies.

In 2016, ExxonMobil announced its partnership with FuelCell Energy Inc to advance the use of carbonate fuel cells to economically capture carbon emissions from power plants while generating hydrogen and additional electricity.

“This key milestone in our advanced biofuels program confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source with a corresponding positive contribution to our environment,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil research and engineering company.

“The major inputs for phototrophic algae production are sunlight and carbon dioxide, two resources that are abundant, sustainable and free. Discoveries made through our partnership with ExxonMobil demonstrate how advanced cell engineering capabilities at Synthetic Genomics can unlock biology to optimise how we use these resources and create solutions for many of today’s sustainability challenges – from renewable energy to nutrition and human health,” said Oliver Fetzer, PhD, CEO of Synthetic Genomics.

“The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimise lipid production in algae. This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source,” said J Craig Venter, PhD Synthetic Genomics co-founder and chairman.

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