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Growing Algae for Oil, The Newest Renewable Energy Source

photograph of an algae bloom on the ocean

Algae may be the bold answer to our energy woes. Researchers are growing algae for oil. Recent breakthroughs have allowed them to double the oil content of algae. If the research continues to progress, we may in time be able to grow oil in algae!

…algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source.

ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Incorporated modified an algae strain to increase the natural production of oil within the algae.

The modification allows for widespread commercialization of algae-based biofuel. The oil content of the algae rose from 20% to more than 40%. Researchers established an approach called ‘proof-of-concept’, which ended in a great result. This was a proof-of-concept test, to demonstrate that the idea was viable. The group can now build out the process and continue to increase the oil producing capability of their strain of algae.

Nannochloropsis gaditana, the algae species modified, doubled its lipid fraction of cellular carbon compared to the parent – while maintaining its growth. ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics developed advanced cell engineering technologies in order to modify the algae to produce oil.

The Renewable Energy Source of the Century

Vijay Swarup, the Vice President for Research and Development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, said “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.”

Genome Web reported that Synthetic Genomics extended its joint research agreement with ExxonMobil on January 20, 2017. They will continue moving forward in their work on developing algae biofuels.

Graphic representation of growing algae for oil

The Growing Partnership of ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics

In 2009, ExxonMobil, the biggest publicly traded international gas and oil company in the world, began its partnership with Synthetic Genomics Incorporated, a private company that focuses on the area of synthetic biology. $600 million was invested in the collaborative enterprise.

The collaboration’s goals were:

  • Creation of a Source of Renewable Oil
  • Research the Genetics of Algae
  • Growth Characteristics of Genetically Altered Algae
  • Oil Production from a Renewable Resource

Over the years, the companies promised to work on enhancing algae strains with improved oil production and photosynthetic efficiency through selection and genetic engineering. They wanted to get biofuel from photosynthetic algae that is going to be compatible with diesel and gasoline fuels.

With continuous evolution of research, both firms created a new agreement in 2013 to develop algae biofuels. The new agreement focused on utilizing technology and synthetic genomic science to make algal strains.

According to J. Craig Venter, the Founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Incorporated, “the new agreement gives us an opportunity to really focus on improving algal strains using our core synthetic biology technologies to develop biofuels.”

The Advantages of Algae

Algae has many beneficial characteristics, in addition to its potential as an oil source.

  • Algae Grow Fast
  • Algae May Produce High Biofuel Yields
  • Algae Consume CO2
  • Algae Grown in Tanks Does Not Compete with Agriculture for Land
  • Microalgal Biomass Can Be Used for Fuel, Feed, and
  • Microalgae Can Be Grown in the Sea
  • Algae Purifies Wastewaters
  • Algae Biomass in Addition Can Be Used as an Energy Source
  • Algae Can Be Used to Produce Many Useful Products
  • The Algae Industry is a Job Creation Engine

The research conducted by ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Incorporated is a step toward the sustainable energy grail. The process of extracting more oil from modified algae is a breakthrough.


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