La Jolla home to biofuels greenhouse

On the first anniversary of their collaboration, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) last week announced the opening of a new experimental greenhouse in La Jolla to develop next-generation biofuels from photosynthetic algae.

“Our companies recognize the world’s growing energy needs will require a range of energy sources and many new technologies, said Dr. Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil at a press conference at SGI headquarters in La Jolla. “We also share the belief that oil from algae holds significant potential as an economically viable, low-emission transportation fuel.”

Craig Venter, a biologist and entrepreneur known for being one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, described the new experimental greenhouse facility as “a small but very important step” in exploring how biocrude might be created and refined to generate gasoline and diesel.

“It’s a huge challenge,” he noted. “We would need literally billions of gallons of fuel if this is going to have an impact at all in shifting carbon dioxide levels or coming up with an alternate source of energy.”

At the greenhouse, researchers from the two companies will examine different growth systems — open ponds, closed photobioreactors — to evaluate the energy-producing potential of natural and engineered strains of algae under a wide range of conditions.

Those include varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations. They will also research the algae fuel production process including harvesting and bio-oil recovery.

Jacobs said the process of extracting oil from algae would only proceed “if it is economically attractive.”

Venter said thousands of algae strains, natural and genetically engineered, are being examined and that a preferred strain has yet to be selected.

Jacobs noted extracting oil from algae and the engineering process involved in that are linked and proceeding simultaneously. “If we had an algae strain today that met the needs we’ve identified, we’d be moving forward with that commercially,” he said.

ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million on the algae biofuels program over the next decade, $300 million of which will be allocated to SGI.

The next major step in the algae-to-oil experimental program is the opening of an outdoor test facility expected in mid-2011.

In other news on the biofuels front last week, BP and La Jolla-based Verenium Corp. announced that the oil giant’s Biofuels North America will acquire the local company’s cellulosic ethanol business for $98.3 million.

Verenium, formed from the merger of Diversa and a Massachusetts company, will keep its commercial enzyme business and havev the right to develop its own lignocellulosic enzyme program, a press release states. Verenium will also “retain select R&D capabilities, as well as rights to access select biofuels technology developed by BP using the technology it is acquiring from Verenium through this agreement.”