I first heard Craig Venter discuss so-called "fourth generation biofuels" during a presentation he gave at TED, where he predicted fourth generation biofuels would exist within 18 months. Venter's new company, Synthetic Genomics, is genetically modifying photosynthetic algae to cause it to secrete oil. These genetically modified organisms will combine C02 and sunlight to create an oil that is passed through the membrane of the algae and into the water were it can be collected. If successful, this will be a revolutionary method of creating biofuel. Current algae fuel methods require the algae to be harvested, dried, and then the algae is somehow either mechanically separated from its oil and processed or gasified. With Venter's method, the algae not only does not have to be dried and separated from the oil, it doesn't even have to be harvested. The algae excretes the oil and the oil is collected. So rather than spend energy continually growing new algae crops, a stable population of algae spends its energy producing and excreting oil.
And the fourth-generation fuels?Trying to read between the lines, it sounds as if Synthetic Genomics already has the modified algae that secrete the oils they are interested in manufacturing and they are now looking for a way to grow this organism on a commercial basis. At any rate, developments regarding this technology are eagerly awaited.
We're using a unique type of algae that we've genetically engineered to turn sunlight and CO2 into C8 and C10 and larger lipids. The people that initially grew algae viewed it as farming—you know, you grow a bunch of algae and then you harvest it. But it's totally different if the algae are chemical factories. Ours continuously secrete these molecules, so we get constant production of something that can basically be used right away as biodiesel.
So they perform better than traditional biofuels—but will they actually be better for the environment?
Because we actually have to feed them concentrated CO2, we can take CO2 streams from power plants, cement plants and other places. People view CO2 as a contaminant—they want to bury it in the ground or pump it into wells to hide or sequester it. We want to take all that waste product and convert it into fuel.
When do you hope to have these fuels in people's cars?
Our goal is to have multiple things on the market within five years. We're looking now at how to scale this up. Our molecules are much higher energy density [than ethanol], but even so we need to produce hundreds of billions of gallons if we're really going to make a dent in oil use.