Kate Mackenzie What Exxon’s $300m man thinks about algal biofuel

Lee Nachtigal

Flickr: Lee Nachtigal

The Wall Street Journal has an interview with J. Craig Venter, the biologist who mapped the human genome and whose company Synthetic Genomics last year received a sizeable commitmentfrom ExxonMobil to develop biofuels from algae.

Venter strikes an interesting balance between optimism and the reality of the many unknowns in getting algal biofuel towards being both cost-effective and scalable.

[We were interested to read the Synthetic Genomics is also working on a project with BP, although the financial details of that arrangement have not been disclosed.]

He talks about using natural or modified organisms that consume CO2 as their feedstock to create transport fuels.

The big question, of course, is when?

Mr MURRAY: When do they expect you to actually be able to deliver fuel?

DR. VENTER: Scalability is the biggest issue. There’s [sic] over 200 algae companies, I think, in the U.S. alone. If we can’t generate billions of gallons of fuel per year per facility, it’s not going to work. But I think with the Exxon engineering team and their money, we have a chance to scale it up. Our optimistic view is on the order of a decade before you would have gasoline in your tank made from CO2.

However on the next question he concedes it’s too early to know:

MR. MURRAY: If you look 20 years, 30 years down the road, how much of our fuel could come from this sort of algae?

DR. VENTER: Theoretically, all transportation fuels. There’s no shortage of areas with lots of sunlight and seawater. It is going to get down to the cost equation. And it’s too early to know.

Part of his optimism comes from the numerous new organisms and genes at sea, and deep below the earth.

The full interview is worth a read. For a more pessimistic view of biofuels from algae, energy blogger Robert Rapier has often turned up grim numbers in the past.

Related links:

Reviving next generation biofuels research in the US (FT Energy Source)
Biofuel from algae at a mere $33 a gallon (FT Energy Source)
BP takes a baby step in microbial biofuel (FT Energy Source)