ExxonMobil will pay SGI to make biofuels from algae.
Following many years of the nebulous promise of biofuels, the floodgates have officially been opened by a decision taken by ExxonMobil. The world’s second largest company announced that it will spend up to $600 million over 5 to 6 years to produce biofuels from algae. Half the money will go to Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), run by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter. Another $300 million will be spent on in-house research to scaleup and refine the fuel. The size of the investment signifies the seriousness of intent and is a tremendous boost to biofuels.
Biofuel from algae has been variously labeled as algal fuel, oilgae, algaeoleum.What are algae? Remember the seaweed in your sushi? Well those are the largest and most complex marine form of the red algae. The simplest ones are single celled and they can make their own food using sunlight via the chloroplast (responsible for the green color in plants).
Memories flood in of the slimy greenies or brackish water samples that we eagerly collected as giddy, young and avid Botanists at Lady Brabournbe College, Kolkata . Dr. Dipti Mukherjee (Head, Botany) would hobble (she had one leg in braces-polio) from microscope to microscope, in her perfumed silk sarees and with her authoritative but melodramatic voice create an aura of mysterious discovery and pronounce: “This is Spirogyra or Volvox or even “Well done girls this is Euglena!”(Completely different from the algae) and “Do you see the lovely Diatoms?!!! “Raise the magnification girls and you can see the beautiful patterns”. We hid our smiles to turn the lenses from 10X to 100X or higher and were enchanted to observe colored moving pictures such as the ones shown. Who would have thought that the mess collected from the dirty drains had such beauty? Those who have loved Kolkata will understand the pining for all that cannot be seen by the eye. I was hooked by their perfection and feel lucky now that Algae were considered plants in 1973!
The Aquatic Species Program was launched in 1978, by President Jimmy Carter. It looked into the production of energy using algae. The production of biofuels from algae helps stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the present level rather than reducing it to a more “healthy” level. Research was stopped in 1996 by the Clinton administration. Even up to 2008, such fuels were thought to be too expensive to replace other commercially available fuels. Today's biggest obstacles are re-engineering algae to produce more hydrocarbons, to make molecules that more closely resemble refined gasoline as well as scaling up the whole process.
The race to market has already begun.....
LS9, which uses engineered Escherichia coli instead of algae to make fuel, hopes to open a large-scale production facility in Brazil by 2013.
AuroraBiofuels in Alameda, California, expects to have a commercial algae biodiesel facility online in 2012.
Algenol plans to begin selling fuel from its facility in Mexico later this year.
Its an exciting time to be alive..................!
Robert F. Service ExxonMobil Fuels Venter's Efforts To Run Vehicles on Algae-Based Oil Science 24 July 2009:Vol. 325. no. 5939, p. 379
PICTURE 1 CREDIT: MARK MAHANEY