|Algae in bioreactor tubes.|
Gene scientist Craig Venter has announced plans to develop next-generation biofuels from algae in a $600m (£370m) partnership with oil giant Exxon Mobil.
His company, Synthetic Genomics Incorporated (SGI), will develop fuels that can be used by cars or aeroplanes without the need for any modification of their engines. Exxon Mobil will provide $600m over five years with half going to SGI.
"Meeting the world's growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources," said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil. "We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future if our efforts result in an economically viable, low-net carbon emission transportation fuel."
Transport accounts for one-quarter of the UK's carbon emissions and is the fastest growing sector. Finding carbon-neutral fuels will be crucial to the government meeting its target to reduce overall emissions by 80% by 2050.
Algae are an attractive way to harvest solar energy because they reproduce themselves, they can live in areas not useful for producing food and they do not need clean or even fresh water. In addition, they use far less space to grow than traditional biofuel crops such as corn or palm oil.
"Algae consumes carbon dioxide and sunlight in the presence of water, to make a kind of oil that has similar molecular structures to petroleum products we produce today," said Jacobs. "That means it could be possible to convert it into gasoline and diesel in existing refineries, transport it through existing pipelines, and sell it to consumers from existing service stations."
The Carbon Trust, a government-backed agency that promotes low-carbon technologies, has forecast that algae-based biofuels could replace more than 70bn litres of fossil fuels used every year around the world in road transport and aviation by 2030, equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel. In carbon terms, this equates to an annual saving of more than 160m tonnes of CO2 globally with a market value of more than £15bn.
Ben Graziano, research and development manager at the Carbon Trust, said that alge-based biofuels offered the potential for "major carbon savings". "Exxon Mobil is estimating that algae could yield just over 20,000 litres of fuel per hectare each year, which is in line with our own forecasts. However, producing biofuel from algae on such a massive commercial scale is a major challenge, which will require many years of research and development."
Venter, who is best known for his role in sequencing the human genome, said the new partnership was the largest single investment in trying to produce biofuels from algae but said the challenge to creating a viable next-generation fuel was the ability to produce it in large volumes. "This would not happen without the oil industry stepping up and taking part," he said. "The challenges are not minor for any of us but we have the combined teams and scientific and engineering talents to give this the best chance of success."
The research programme will begin with the construction of a new test facility in San Diego, where Venter says different techniques to grow and optimise algae will be tested. These will include open ponds as well as bioreactors, where the algae are grown in sealed tubes. "We will be trying out these different approaches … using newly-discovered natural algae to test the best approaches we can come up with to go into a scale-up mode."
Venter has spent several years trawling the world's oceans in search of environmentally-friendly microbes that could be used, in one way or another, to bring down the world's carbon emissions. The organisms he has found include those that can turn CO2 into methane, which could be used to make fuels from the exhaust gases of power stations, and another that turns coal into natural gas, speeding up a natural process and reducing both the energy needed to extract the fossil fuel and the amount of pollution caused when it is burned.