Issue: May 2013


by Bob Brooks

ExxonMobil(EM) and Synthetic Genomics Inc (SGI) recently announcement termination of their joint 3-year effort to develop oil from natural algae. That effort is now replaced with a new team effort based on basic science research aimed at genetically modified (GM) algae oil.

SGI’s long experience with GM technology apparently provided the convincing
argument that GM is the only way the targets can be met considering the massive
size of the market and business needs for a firm such as ExxonMobil

Unknown so far is the expected time line for the program, however, it can be reported that several weeks ago when termination of the initial half $billion 3-year
effort based on natural algae was made known, a spokesman for SGI indicated a next phase might be as long as 25 years.

Surely pushing the new algae related effort is news that first production of low emissions oil from existing organic material via fast pyrolysis, for instance, is scheduled for start-up at scale in 2014. UOP/ENI pyrolysis oil for refinement into diesel fuel will be made first in Europe where regulations call for 20% reduction in GHG emissions from transportation fuel by 2020. Initially, 100 million gal/yr of diesel fuel is planned increasing to over 1 billion gal/yr by 2017. The pyrolysis system converts organic material to crude oil in 2-seconds at 500C. Subsidies are apparently not needed. A recent DOE study positions pyrolysis based fuel as low cost (including low capital costs).

Other bio fuel system are progressing which collectively could capture meaningful market shares. One of these is the KiOR system which converts pulverized wood into fuel with a thermal/catalytic system; now in operation in Mississippi and scheduled for expansion to other locations. Yet another is the Joule Unlimited system in Hobbs, New Mexico which secretes fuel from microorganisms; the firm now says will begin production in 2015. Secretion is one of the technologies on SGI’s list of systems it plans to research. Economic ethanol by secretion has been demonstrated by Algenol Biofuels in Florida.

In the overall picture, negative attitudes about some alternative fuels due
to heavy use of food crops, water, chemicals and subsidies, are being replaced by better social, environmental and economic characteristics of new fuels that also contribute to the U.S. economy and need for energy security

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