Advanced Biofuels Research on Algae
ExxonMobil is carrying out a basic research program with Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI), Colorado School of Mines and Michigan State, to develop advanced biofuels from algae, as part of its many investments in new technologies with the transformative potential to increase energy supplies, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies.
The central challenge is that algae naturally harvest significantly more light than they can effectively convert to biofuels. Only a fixed amount of light hits the surface of a pond, and the goal is for the algae to use this light as efficiently as possible. The amount of wasted sunlight varies greatly depending on the algae species and growth conditions, but can be as high as 80 percent or more. ExxonMobil and SGI are conducting fundamental research to decrease the amount of wasted sunlight and increase biomass productivity by improving the photosynthetic efficiency of individual algae cells. To achieve this objective, the SGI team is working to engineer algae cells that will absorb only the amount of light that they can effectively use.
ExxonMobil is pursuing research into second generation biofuels to determine how they may best fit into our energy future. Second generation biofuels are defined as those produced from non-edible crops, crop residues, or biologically generated gas and therefore do not take away from the total food supply.
There are numerous benefits of using algae for biofuels production. Algae can be cultivated on land unsuitable for other purposes with water that can’t be used for food production. In addition to using non-arable land and not requiring the use of fresh water, algae could also potentially yield greater volumes of biofuels per acre than other sources.
Algae can provide a diverse and highly desirable non-food source of the important renewable molecules that can be used to produce second generation biofuels. Some strains of algae can be optimized to produce bio-diesel precursors. Other algae strains can be optimized as a source of fermentable sugars, with compositions similar to those derived from corn kernels that are used to manufacture first generation biofuels like ethanol.
In addition, growing algae can provide an environmental benefit. Algae consume CO2 and have the potential to provide GHG mitigation benefits versus conventional fuels. In 2012, researchers from MIT, ExxonMobil and SGI published an assessment of algal biofuels which concluded that if key research hurdles are overcome, algal biofuels will have about 50% lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-derived fuel.