It’s slimy. It’s green. And one day, it could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
Since 2009, researchers from Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have collaborated in a quest to convert algae into a sustainable, commercially-viable biofuels. Now, the joint venture has announced a breakthrough that allows algae to produce two times as much lipid oil — the key ingredient that could one day replace fossil fuels.
It’s still a proof of concept, but researcher Imad Ajjawi calls it, “a significant milestone in establishing the foundation for a path that leads to eventual commercialization of algal biofuels.”
Algae is a family of plant-like organisms that comes in all shapes, sizes, and colours. When you think of algae, you’re probably picturing the slippery stuff that collects on river rocks. But the algae family also includes funguses, mosses, and giant, leafy kelp. It comes in shades of red, green, brown, and even purple.
It doesn’t take much to take algae grow. Most species feed on carbon dioxide and release oxygen via photosynthesis. All it takes is water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Unlike the fuels we’re trying to replace, these resources are in all abundance here on planet earth.
About half of algae is imposed of something called lipid oil. Scientists have been working since the 1970s to use algae-produced lipid oil as a fuel alternative. Previously, it was difficult to get enough lipid oil out of the algae to make it a commercially viable venture.
That’s where this new breakthrough comes in. Together, Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have used gene editing technology to genetically modify strains of algae to produce twice as much lipid oil as they do in the wild. Most importantly, the change doesn’t impact the algae’s growth in any other way, giving it potential to become a wide-scale biofuel source.
Today, more than 20 countries, including the United States and China, are investing in algal biofuel research. Leading airlines and aviation companies are also optimistic about its potential for a cleaner, greener fuel.
Science writer Julian Cribb predicts that algal biofuels could become a $50 billion industry in the future. “Fossil oil comes from algae that died millions of years ago. Today it makes far better sense to grow the oil fresh, using living water plants,” he writes.
The advantages of algae are numerous. To start, it grows naturally in just about every climate around the world. Sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide are abundant and (except for water in some cases) free. In the best conditions, algae can grow almost limitlessly.
With fossil fuels being depleted worldwide, we know we can’t rely on a petro-based fuel products forever. Algae-derived biofuel is a promising alternative green energy source.