Slime Power

“I believe the best examples of disruptive technologies that could change our future are in the new fields of synthetic biology, synthetic genomics, and genome engineering. These fields can change the way we think about life by showing that we can use living systems to increase our chances of survival as a species. Simply put: this area of research will enable us to create new fuels to replace oil and coal.”

J. Craig Venter, 2007 (Dimbleby Lecture)

In our search for better, cheaper, cleaner energy sources one area that is really “cooking,” if you will pardon the pun, is research into the use of algae to produce biofuels.  Algae can produce more than 30 times the oil per acre as corn and soybeans crops without driving up the price of the food we eat. And, as it turns out, biofuels produced from algae do not have the sulfur making it both biodegradable and non-toxic.

When my kids were small we had an aquarium in the family room which got just enough sunlight that is often grew that ugly green slime on the sides of the tank.  My wife was always after me to clean the fish tank.  Little did I know, at the time, that I wasted one of my best excuses for procrastinating at that item on her “honey-do” list since algae, as it turns out, is good for the planet.

Algae feed on water and carbon dioxide (CO2), and can absorb the acid rain chemicals SOx and NOx which are bi-products used for ethanol and biofuels production. Certain blue-green algae can grow in the hot flue gas stacks from power or chemical plants attracting industry interest in techniques for reducing emissions.

The quotation above from Dr Craig Venter of genomics fame captures the research promise behind turning that green stuff into slime power to save the planet.  Now Venter and his firm, Synthetic Genomics (SGI), have joined forces with ExxonMobil (XOM) to dramatically expand this research effort with word that XOM will invest $300 million into this SGI effort on top of another $300 million on its own.  See:  http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/media/press/71409.html.

This collaboration is similar to research efforts between SGI and BP to apply new research technologies to develop biological conversion processes for subsurface hydrocarbons for cleaner energy production and improved recovery rates.  But the XOM/SGI collaboration is designed to be a long term research partnership that will result in licensing successful algal research results across a wide range of biotech, energy and other applications.

While this $600 million investment is pocket change for XOM it is a profound scaling of the investment in algae research representing more than the total private equity invested in algae startups since 2005.  Find more on XOM algal research at: http://www.exxonmobil.com/Corporate/energy_climate_con_vehicle_algae.aspx.

National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap

USDOE has issued a Request for Information (“RFI”) asking for public comment and feedback on a draft “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap” to assess current algae technology and next steps toward commercialization.  $786.5 million of stimulus money is also being allocated by US DOE to advanced biofuels R&D including $50 million to establish an algae biofuels consortium to jumpstart algae demonstration projects.  Separately, Prize Capital, LLC , a private equity fund which supports environmental start-ups, created a $10 million algae fuel prize to encourage development of advanced algae biofuels technologies.

So why should we care about Slime Power?

Algae are a very efficient means of producing high vegetable oil content comparable to petroleum products. Using algae does not divert foodstuffs from the supply chain or drive up food prices like using corn in ethanol production. Algae also grows at geometric rates; many times faster than other plant based oils making it a more attractive feedstock material for ethanol or oils for biodiesel production.

Algae have serious potential as a substitute for diesel and jet fuels and can play a role in the long term improving our self sufficiency, sustainability and energy management.

An easy way to stay abreast of the changing law and regulations about biofuels is to check out Stoel Rives blog at: http://www.lawofrenewableenergy.com/articles/biofuels/.

Now get that dang fish tank clean, buster!

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