Craig Venter's Fourth Generation Biofuels From Algae

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.

By far, this is the most promising scenario for algae fuel that I have heard.  However, few details have been divulged and it is difficult to know how much progress has actually been made. Today,  Popular Mechanics posted a brief interview with Craig Venter describing fourth generation biofuels.  The good parts of the interview are excerpted below, the rest of the interview is rather tedious as Venter expresses his total buy-in to the man made global warming hypothesis and how great he thinks Jimmy Carter was as a President.
And the fourth-generation fuels?

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.
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.



August 17, 2009 at 2:01 PM

It's not really necessary- or indeed, probably economically viable- to cause the algae to secrete oil into the surrounding fluid to be collected- it is more cost-effective to simply extract as much oil as possible by mechanical means, then regrow the algae stock.

Biofuel can be comprised of almost any oil from an organic source. Plants do make oil naturally. Compress the plant, and squeeze out the oil. Algae are no different, so it's not that Venter et al are actually making the algae do something entirely unnatural. What they want to do is to increase the efficiency of production by engineering them to be hardier, and produce more oil. The buzz of excitement about them is that they are potentially far easier to grow than crop plants currently used for biofuel (don't require arable land, for example), and can produce a higher oil yield per mass than higher plants.


August 17, 2009 at 2:04 PM

Ha. Sorry, my mistake. I'm just revamping an article on algal biofuels I wrote a couple of months ago. Now on further investigation, I see Venter really is trying to make the algae produce oils into the surrounding fluid. As a cocky former biologist, I had thought the concept sounded incredibly unlikely...

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January 11, 2011 at 1:44 PM

so a new genetic combination, and this is one is based in CO2? well maybe finally we have something to spend all the CO2 in this world.

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January 10, 2012 at 2:03 PM

even though the biofuels are a very nice idea, I think that we will not see that any time soon since there are many big interests in this fuel business