Scientist On Plan To Turn Algae To Fuel

Energy giant ExxonMobil has committed $600 million to a plan to make biofuel from algae. It has joined hands with Synthetic Genomics, founded by J. Craig Venter, the man behind the project to map the human genome. Venter says algae are far more scaleable than other substances — like corn — that are being used to made fuel.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, a new venture in biofuels. Exxon Mobil has committed $600 million to a plant to make biofuel from algae. The firm they've hooked up with is Synthetic Genomics. It was founded by Dr. J. Craig Venter, whose prior company, Celera Genomics, raced the government to map the human genome.

And Dr. Venter joins us from La Jolla, California. Welcome to the program.

Dr. J. CRAIG VENTER (Founder, Synthetic Genomics): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, to clarify, is it fair or roughly accurate to say that you're going to try to do with photosynthetic algae what people have been doing with corn to make ethanol in recent years?

Dr. VENTER: Well, the goal is not to make ethanol. Ethanol is not a very good fuel and using cropland and a food substance to make a fuel has not proven to be very smart on any front. So algae is something that can grow in non-arable land, including desert land. We can use brackish water or seawater, and that uses sunlight as its energy source and consumes a lot of CO2 in making these hydrocarbons that can be converted into fuel.

SIEGEL: But we've heard futurists who find ethanol lacking, talking about switchgrass and that sort of thing. What's better about algae than using switchgrass?

Dr. VENTER: Well, we need lots of different solutions, so we're not anti-switchgrass at all. But algae is one of the things, due to exponential growth, that is far more scalable. Even the low-yield algaes have about 10 times as many gallons of fuel per year per acre as you can get from corn. And the scale is the big challenge…

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Dr. VENTER: For a scientist such as myself, going from a test tube to a beaker is usually considered a scale-up reaction. If we can't produce billions of gallons eventually, all this is really just hot air.

SIEGEL: Now, just to clarify here, you're thinking in terms, not just of harvesting algae from the sea, you're talking about farming algae.

Dr. VENTER: Well, in fact, people have thought about farming algae for decades, growing it up, then harvesting it, then extracting the fatty material - or the hydrocarbons - to make fuels. We've engineered the algae to just continuously pump these important precursors to fuel molecules out in a pure form. So it changes it from farming to bioreactors, which have the potential for continuous production and a much greater scalability factor.

SIEGEL: What are your concerns, sir? That is, if you were to create tracks of brackish waters filled with algae that is being grown for fuel, might there be an impact on the environment that we're not thinking about at first?

Dr. VENTER: Well, part of what we're doing, and the initial phases here in La Jolla, we're building a totally new greenhouse facility to, in fact, test whether open ponds, open tracks, as you described them, or closed bioreactors are going to be the most efficient way for scaling up to the scale that needs to be done.

Obviously, it's important with any engineered organism to make sure that it can't escape into the environment. I think we need to give some careful thought to that to make sure we're not introducing species into environments where they're not already there.

SIEGEL: Well, from your time at Synthetic Genomics, you're a veteran of a major scientific race. Given reasonably good fortune and success but assuming some setbacks, how much of a time frame do you think is realistic - to think of going from where we are now to having fuel out there in the market that's been generated from algae?

Dr. VENTER: It's a very important question. This is not going to happen in the next two years. One of the things that was very important in our agreement with Exxon Mobil is, we both had the same kind of timelines in mind of what it would take to really get to the scale needed to make a dent on even transportation fuels. And we think that's somewhere in the five- to 10-year time course before there's really substantial amounts of fuel out there in the market that could come from these algae sources.

SIEGEL: Dr. Venter, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. VENTER: Nice to talk with you.

SIEGEL: That's J. Craig Venter, speaking to us from La Jolla, California. His company, Synthetic Genomics, has hooked up with Exxon Mobil to try to develop biofuels from algae.

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