12 Synthetic Biology Biofuel & Biochemical Companies to Watch

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algaeA detailed review of 12 U.S. based synthetic biology, biofuel & biochemical companies that are developing third and fourth generation biofuels, bioindustrial & household chemical, and food additive products; using synthetic biology to produce engineered microorganisms and specialty enzymatic products. Each company is examined in turn, looking at its financials and the uniqueness and strength of its processes and technology as well as at any important partnerships or alliances that have been formed.

by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post Chris is the co-editor of The Green Executive Recruiter Directory. Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost

What Are Synthetic Biology Biofuel and Biochemical Companies? A Quick Overview

When most people think of biofuels they think of corn ethanol. However there are other sides to biofuel that do not rely on food crops and that do not displace food crops. Some of these such as biomass and cellulosic biofuel make use of the woody parts of plants either using them directly as a fuel or fuel additive or fermenting them with organisms that can digest cellulose to produce derived fuels.

There is another branch of biofuels that seeks to harness microorganisms directly in order to produce fuel. This type of biofuel is called algal biofuel, because it uses algae that produce fatty lipids that can be refined into fuels. In this sector there are a growing number of companies that are seeking to engineer industrial scale organisms that are specially adapted to producing biofuels and these are the synthetic biology biofuel companies that this post is focused on.

Synthetic biology is being used in two related but distinct processes for biofuels production. The first area of research and development is focused on using synthetic enzymes to break down cellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars for fuel, while the second is focused on creating or engineering microbes that produce useable biofuel directly.

Enzymes, which are special proteins that catalyze cellular reactions, are being engineered with synthetic DNA (or DNA taken from other species) into microbes that are being developed in labs and are being designed to break down certain types of biomass, such as woodchips, corn stalks, or other cellulosic biomass and also to increase the rate at which they are broken down into sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol or other types of fuels. The sophistication of today’s enzyme cocktails is getting to be pretty staggering; they are beginning to combine many different families of activities, in increasingly effective ways.

Synthetic biologists hope to change the microorganisms they are working with so that the oil they produce is chemically similar or identical to the oils that are currently used in today’s transportation and energy infrastructure. These microbes would become “living chemical factories” that can be engineered to pump out almost any type of fuel or industrial chemical.

Our related post: “Will Big Oil Become Big Algae? ExxonMobil and Chevron Invest in Synthetic Biology“, looks at some of the big investments that oil majors have been making in the biofuel sector.

Following is the listing of the synthetic biofuel & biochemical companies that are in our list of synthetic biofuel and biochemical companies to watch.

List of Synthetic Biology Biofuel & Biochemical Companies

Disclaimer: Though I researched this and tried to make sure I got as complete a list of currently growing and interesting companies in this space I may have missed your company. If you feel that I did please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know why I should include your firm in this listing. It is also important to remember that this sector is rapidly evolving, in fact I have had to revise the material in just the time frame between my initial research and publication, because things are moving so rapidly in this area. The listing is in alphabetical order. There is literally a lot of ferment — and not the kind that goes on in bio-reactors — in this area with deals being made left and right now and companies being swallowed up by bigger companies who are themselves being swallowed up by big global corporations.

Algenol

Algenol, headquartered in Bonita Springs, Florida, and founded in 2006 is a company developing a process to produce ethanol and high-value organic green-chemicals directly from carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and its modified algae. Their process appears somewhat unique in this regard;it uses hybrid algae to produce ethanol from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Algenol has a large number of algal strains capable of producing ethanol and has an active research effort to produce more. It claim its process can produce 6,000 US gallons per acre per year, which is 16 times the ethanol yield per acre that can be achieved from corn and well over six times the best ethanol production yields from sugar cane.

The key component of the process is a proprietary flexible film photobioreactor made of plastic with special additives and coatings. The photobioreactor contains treated seawater that has been cleansed and fertilized with nutrients. After hybrid algae inoculation, carbon dioxide is introduced into the outdoor photobioreactor and the algae is grown in the sun, the hybrid algae perform photosynthesis and produce internal sugars that are converted into ethanol inside each algal cell. The ethanol made inside the cell diffuses through the cell wall into the culture medium and then evaporates, along with water, into the headspace. The ethanol- water vapor condenses on the inner surface of the bioreactor and is collected by gravity, concentrated, and then distilled into fuel grade ethanol.

This unique process may be significantly less capital and energy intensive than competitive algal biofuel processes. In fact there is no need to remove the biomass, then squeeze it dry on a belt press, and extract the oils in still a third processing step. Instead, if it all works out as claimed the Algenol process lets the algae do all the work of producing ethanol.

In addition to its direct algae to ethanol process, Algenol has succeeded in making some of feedstocks used to make industrial or specialty chemicals in small quantities in the laboratory and is planning to expand its work in this field.

To date approximately $70 million in equity financing has been raised, and more than $40 million has been invested in research and development and building a team of more than 100 scientists and engineers. The company is lead by its founder Paul Woods.

Algenol has developed a broad relationship with the Dow Chemical Company that includes Dow’s participation in building a pilot-scale integrated biorefinery for producing ethanol using the company’s unique process at a Dow facility in Freeport, Texas. This project is funded by the Department of Energy but entails significant cost-share by both Dow and Algenol.

In December 2009, Algenol got a $25m United States Department of Energy grant to help build the Integrated Biorefinery Direct to Ethanol project in Lee County Florida and an additional $10 million grant from Lee County to employee people in Lee County and also build the Integrated Biorefinery Direct to Ethanol project in Lee County Florida.

Amyris

Amyris is a synthetic biology biofuel company, founded in 2003 and based in Emeryville, CA that is positioning itself to become a leading provider of renewable specialty chemicals and transportation fuels worldwide. Currently the company has between 300 and 350 employees.

Amyris has developed genetic engineering and screening technologies that enables them to modify the way microorganisms, or microbes, process sugar. By controlling these metabolic pathways, they are able to design microbes, primarily yeast, and use them as living factories in established fermentation processes to convert plant-sourced sugars such as those from sugarcane or sweet sorghum into the desired target molecules.

Amyris is now a public company. It’s IPO was on 9/27/10 and its current (7/2011) market cap is hovering around $1.3 billion. The company has bee trading in the $30 range.

It had previously raised $120 million of VC money from amongst others, Kleiner Perkins. It has a majority owned subsidiary Amyris Brazil S.A., established to support technology scale-up leading toward commercialization of Amyris renewable products.

The company has just announced June of 2011 that it plans to establish a collaboration with Wilmar International Limited. The collaboration will focus on the development and worldwide commercialization of a family of surfactants derived from Amyris Biofene(TM) for use in a range of products, including consumer packaged goods, personal care products and industrial applications. The parties expect that these surfactants will be effective replacements for nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants (NPEs), the use of which is currently being phased out or severely restricted by regulatory agencies around the world due to health and environmental concerns. The current market for NPEs exceeds $1 billion per year.

Wilmar International Limited, founded in 1991, is today Asia’s leading agribusiness group. Wilmar is ranked among the largest listed companies by market capitalization on the Singapore Exchange.

Amyris is led by industry veteran John Melo has more than 20 years of combined experience as a business leader and expert in the global fuels industry. Its VP of research is Jack D. Newman, Ph.D., who co-founded Amyris and has over a decade of experience researching bacterial physiology and genetics. The other co-founder and now Chief Technical Officer is Neil Renninger, Ph.D., who has a cross-disciplinary understanding of both the micro-world of strain engineering and the macro-world of chemical engineering.

Amyris is positioning itself to become a leading provider of renewable specialty chemicals and transportation fuels worldwide. It’s initial bio-produced molecule, farnesene, can serve as the basis for a wide range of products, enabling them to optimize their product mix and reduce their exposure to any single market. They intend to commercialize their first products in select specialty chemical markets in 2011 using contract manufacturers. Amyris own initial production facilities will be located in Brazil.

By locating their primary production facilities in Brazil they plan to leverage a mature sugar growing and fermentation infrastructure, lower production costs and ensuring access to a feedstock that is largely insulated from price volatility. Amyris will work with Brazilian sugar and ethanol producers to build new, “bolt-on” facilities adjacent to their existing mills instead of building new “greenfield” facilities, thereby reducing the capital required to establish and scale their production. The first production facility, a joint venture in Brazil with Usina São Martinho, will be operational in the second quarter of 2012.
The company also has a second US Pilot Plant located in Emeryville, California, funded in part by a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE).

Artemisinin is a potent anti-malarial compound naturally found in the Chinese Sweet Wormwood plant. Its large scale production has been difficult. Funded by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amyris Biotechnologies and UC Berkeley have been working together on the Artemisinin Project since 2004 to help create a non-seasonal, high-quality, affordable artemisinin supply. The goal is to reduce the production cycle to 14 days, in contrast to the months or years it can take to extract naturally occurring artemisinin.

In the first quarter of 2008, Amyris announced that it is transferring its technology to the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis for large-scale development. Their claim is their synthetic biology derived product will ultimately enable the treatment of more than 500 million estimated malaria cases. They hope to reach market availability by 2011–2012.

Codexis

Codexis is a Redwood City, California based developer of biocatalysts for drug and biofuel production, founded in 2002 as a spin off from drug developer Maxygen. It had its IPO in April 2010 (now trading just under $10 on Nasdaq: CDSX).

Codexis employs directed evolution to produce customized biocatalysts derived from living organisms and that have been scientifically evolved to perform a desired (and difficult) process in the biofuels, pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries. They develop enzyme products that make new industrial processes possible, and make existing processes faster, cleaner and more efficient than conventional methods. Essentially the company identifies potentially important enzymatic products and using gene (DNA) shuffling technology it synthetically evolves useful microbial organisms such as yeast that acquire the ability to produce desired catalytic enzymes in useful quantities.

The company is trying to diversify into a variety of markets (such as pharmaceutical precursors, household products, carbon capture and waste water treatment for example) however its primary partnership has long been with Shell Oil (Europe’s largest oil company) with which it had been collaborating since 2006 to find critical pathways for developing economically feasible alternative transportation fuels from renewable non food biomass resources.

In recent news Shell has just sold its 15.6% stake in Codexis (in June 2011) to Brazilian sugarcane ethanol giant Raizen Energia Participacoes S.A. the $12 billion biofuels joint venture Shell has with Cosan Limited, and now closed its direct joint venture with the company. Raizen can produce more than 2 billion liters of ethanol annually, which makes it the third largest fuels producer in Brazil. As part of the deal to create Raizen, Shell also transfwered its 50% stake in Iogen Energy (Canadian biotechnology company Iogen holds the other 50%) Plans are still underway for Codexis’s biocatalysts to be used in Iogen Energy’s 500,000 liter/year cellulosic ethanol plant already operational at Ottawa, Canada; as well as to continue to develop biofuels from wheat straw and sugar-cane bagasse, the cellulose-rich waste from cane processing.

Genencor

Genencor, founded in 1982 in Palo Alto, California (though now headquartered in Rochester, New York) is a division of Danisco itself since acquired by Dupont in May 2011. It is one of the largest developers and manufacturers of industrial enzymes in the world, and is one of the pioneers in the the field of industrial biotechnology.

The company hopes that its next product offering, Accellerase® TRIO, will become widely adopted in the production of second generation cellulosic biofuels, enabling biofuel producers to more cost-effectively manufacture cellulosic ethanol from a wide range of renewable nonfood feedstocks such as switchgrass, wheat straw and corn stover as well as from municipal solid waste. Accellerase® TRIO has a combined “cocktail” of enzymes in one single product to break down carbohydrates in feedstocks into fermentable sugars, thus increasing the ethanol yield per unit of feedstock. Accellerase Trio is an enzyme cocktail optimized to break down the difficult C5 and C6 sugars in various biomass feedstocks, potentially improving producers’ yields by up to 20% over Genencor’s previous best enzyme package, Accellerase Duet.

In addition Genencor also markets enzymes for the starch (e.g. corn) ethanol indsutry as well. It also develops and produces enzymes for the food, beverage and animal nutrition industries, which are sold under the Danisco brand and is producing specialty industrial enzymes for producing a wide range of products. In fact, Genencor sells 400 commercial enzyme products today.

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To read a skeptical view on the whole algal biofuel sector see our related post “Could Algae be the New Corn?

Gevo

Gevo is a renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels startup, headquartered in Englewood, Colorado and founded in 2005. It is developing biobased alternatives to petroleum-based products using a combination of synthetic biology and chemistry. Using technology developed at Caltech, Gevo has been working on engineering enzymes that can convert waste and other cellulosic feedstocks into alternative fuels like butanol, and is now moving to begin its first joint venture to produce isobutanol, a versatile platform chemical for the liquid fuels and petrochemicals markets. Gevo’s goal is to deploy their isobutanol technology by using a “capital light” business model, which involves retrofitting existing ethanol manufacturing plants.

Isobutanol has broad market applications as a solvent and a gasoline blendstock that can help refiners meet their renewable fuel and clean air obligations. It can also be further processed using well-known chemical processes into jet fuel and feedstocks for the production of synthetic rubber, plastics and polyesters. Butanol, when used as a fuel, is more similar to gasoline than ethanol. Like ethanol, butanol is an alcohol compound, but having four carbon atoms instead of two gives it characteristics that make it more compatible with the existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Gevo trades on NASDAQ (GEVO) with 52 Wk High / Low $ 26.36 / $ 12.79 and current (6/2011) price of around $15 & market cap of $384 million. The company had its IPO last February 2011, priced at $15 per share. Its main early VC investors were Khosla Ventures and Virgin Green Fund, as well as Burrill & Co. and Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund.

One possible cloud on this companies horizon is a lawsuit filed against it by another bio-butanol player, Butamax Advanced Biofuels, which is a joint venture between DuPont and BP. The law suit alleges that Gevo infringed on its patent 7851188, which covers biocatalysts developed by Butamax to produce isobutanol.

Gevo just announced (June 2011) that it has, through its wholly owned subsidiary, Gevo Development, LLC, entered into a joint venture transaction with with Redfield Energy, LLC of Redfield, South Dakota to retrofit Redfield’s existing ethanol plant into an isobutanol plant with an expected production capacity of approximately 38 million gallons per year (“MGPY”). The retrofit is expected to commence by year end 2011, and Gevo expects to begin commercial production of isobutanol at the facility in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Joule Unlimited

Founded in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs, Joule is privately held startup headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.It was co-founded by venture capitalists at Flagship Ventures and Noubar Afeyan, who is a Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors and David Berry also a Founder and on the Board of Directors. In April 2010 the company closed a $30 million second round of funding and is about to begin commercializing its production platform based on its patented super microorganism.

The company claims that its unique production ready platform, which it has dubbed Helioculture™ platform combines breakthroughs in genome engineering, bioprocessing and hardware engineering to convert sunlight and waste CO2 directly into clean, fungible diesel fuel, bypassing the limitations of biofuel production. The production system is optimized to facilitate the entire continuous process, scaling to desired output levels with no dependence on raw material feedstocks, agricultural land, fresh water or crops. In other words they plan to take abundant sunlight (and warm temperatures), water (that is unsuitable for agriculture), under-utilized desert land, and a ready nearby source of CO2 and use these, currently marginal assets to produce up to 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually, at costs as low as $20 per barrel equivalent including subsidies.

Joule has constructed and is now operating a pilot plant in Leander, Texas, where the company has been further developing and testing its transformative system for the production of renewable solar fuels.

Joule has reported (on May 2011) that they have signed a lease for 1,200 acres in Lea County, New Mexico, with the potential to scale the project up to 5,000 acres for production of renewable diesel and ethanol directly from sunlight and waste CO2. The company has also secured $19 million in state tax incentives for the project after New Mexico’s Legislature voted to amend the state’s Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit Act to help companies with breakthrough processes like Joule’s qualify.

In its statement Joule has said that that the Lea County site was chosen because it meets their algal biofuel production requirements, which include high solar insolation, relatively warm night time ambient temperatures, access to non-potable (briny) water and waste CO2. Naturally the $19 million sales tax incentive didn’t hurt either. The company will use its genetically engineered, and patented version of cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide, dirty water and sunlight into a liquid hydrocarbon that is functionally equivalent to regular diesel. At full-scale production, Joule expects to deliver diesel and ethanol for as little as $20/bble and $0.60/gallon respectively, including current subsidies, the company now says.

If they can do what they are claiming they have a game changing winner on their hands; however it remains to be seen how effectively the company can extract the biodiesel and/or ethanol produced by their engineered cyanobacteria and if these little microbes can achieve the conversion efficiencies that would be needed in order to produce at the yields Joule is claiming it can reach.

LS9

LS9, is a privately-held industrial biotechnology company based in South San Francisco, California that is developing patent-pending synthetic biology biofuels and sustainable chemicals.

LS9 employs a genetically modified version of e-coli bacteria to make biodiesel. It has a “one-step” fermentation process, which it says eliminates the need for additional chemicals and industrial processes. The company has announced the development of an engineered microbe that it claims can produce advanced biofuels, such as biodiesel directly from cellulosic biomass. Research was done in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley and the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute. It currently operates a 1,000-liter pilot plant in South San Francisco, California that produces bio-diesel from first generation feedstock (such as sugarcane), but the long-term goal of LS9 is to produce biofuels and chemicals using cellulosic feedstock and in so doing reduce the total, life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of its biofuels and other chemical products.

In December 2010 LS9 closed a $30 million Series D round of funding, led by the investors at BlackRock, and that also included the company’s existing investors Khosla Ventures, Flagship Ventures and Lightspeed Ventures. It has raised a total of $75 million in four rounds of venture funding to date.

LS9 also has closed deals with companies such as Procter and Gamble to use its technology for producing chemicals that can go into many consumer products. It has also purchased a large production facility in Okeechobee, Florida this year, which it plans to retrofit it for commercial production of diesel and other chemical compounds.

Mascoma

Mascoma Corporation was founded by Wyman, Lynd and Bob Johnsen with initial funding from Khosla and Flagship Ventures.It has raised $100 million from private investors like Marathon Oil, GM and Khosla Ventures and received $100 million in grants and loans from federal and state government agencies. However the comapny has also been struggling to get its seemingly promising technology to the place were it is market ready and has had trouble raising the capital it needs in order to continue development.

Mascoma’s goal is to streamline the cellolosic biofuels production process by genetically engineering a microorganism that can metabolize cellulose and produce ethanol in a single step. That will cut out the need for adding costly enzymes, its scientists say. The unique technology developed by Mascoma Corporation uses yeast and bacteria that are engineered to produce large quantities of the enzymes necessary to break down the cellulose and ferment the resulting sugars into ethanol. By combining these two steps (enzymatic digestion and fermentation) into a single process production costs are significantly reduced by eliminating the need for enzyme produced in a separate refinery. This process, called Consolidated Bioprocessing or “CBP”, will ultimately enable the conversion of cellulosic feedstock to ethanol in just a few days.

Valero oil, the same Texas oil company that tried to kill California’s implementation of the state’s landmark global warming law, has signed a non-binding letter of intent to support the construction of a plant in Michigan that would be capable of generating 40 million gallons of ethanol a year. It should be noted that Valero has not already committed any real money to this venture yet and it remains to be seen if the deal goes all the way through as stated. Never the less, having pointed this out, Mascoma Corp. has found a key piece of funding for a commercial-scale ethanol plant in Michigan. Valero Energy Corp. has signed a nonbinding agreement to invest up to $50 million to fund construction of a refinery that would use wood-based materials to make ethanol.

Frontier Renewable Resources, a joint venture of Lebanon, N.H.-based Mascoma and its Michigan-based partner, J.M. Longyear, expects to break ground on the plant this year and to begin production of ethanol in 2013, according to Mascoma. The plant is slated to begin production of 20 million gallons of ethanol form a woody feedstock and eventually expand production upto an 80 million gallons per year rate.

Qteros

Qteros is a synthetic biotechnology startup, headquartered in Marlborough, Massachusetts. The company hopes to commercialize a lower cost cellulosic biofuel production process that converts biomass directly to ethanol. It has developed an engineered microbe that converts various forms of cellulose such as corn stover, switch grass, sugar cane bagasse, wood chips and recycled paper directly into ethanol, without the need for seperate enzymatic and fermentation steps. It hopes to use the biomass-to-ethanol technology to reduce both process and plant capital costs and to enable cost-effective large scale of ethanol production from cellulosic biomass. The company operates with leading industry and research and development partners to develop and implement the technology platform. Qteros is United States.

Qteros, which had previously raised nearly $30 million in venture capital to date from Venrock, Battery Ventures, oil giant BP, billionaire financier George Soros’s Soros Fund Management, Camros Capital, and Long River Ventures has succeeded in raising an additional $22M in third round financing (January 2011) that is expected to provide sufficient funding to accelerate the Company’s development and commercialization plans.

Its ability to raise this third round of financing is in part due to its announced strategic partnership with the giant Indian global engineering firm Praj Industries Limited to develop a process design package for cellulosic ethanol production facilities. The package will be created using Qteros’ consolidated bioprocessing technology and Praj’s technology and process engineering and is expected to become available to potential customers within two years.

Sapphire Energy

Sapphire Energy, is an algal biofuel startup founded in 2007 and based in San Diego, California. It is led by entrepreneur and scientist Jason Pyle and has developed breakthrough technology to produce drop-in transportation fuels, including 91 octane gasoline, 89 octane diesel, and jet fuel from open pond grown algae. By applying the principals used in biotechnology, Sapphire has produced oil in algae that is highly branched and undecorated – the way that traditional crude is – to get a biological crude molecularly similar to light sweet crude.

To date the company has raised funding in excess of $100 million. It has several high-powered private investors—the Wellcome Trust, Cascade that’s owned by Bill Gates, Venrock of the Rockfeller family, and ARCH Venture Partners.

In March of this year (2011) the company announced its first pilot scal eoutdoor pond growing facility, Algae will be cultivated by Sapphire Energy in man-made ponds about 8 miles west of Columbus, New Mexico on the Mexican border, to later be converted to a green goop called algae-based biofuel, oilgae, or algal fuel. Luna County, where the facility is located, is considered ideal for algae-based biofuel because of the flat desert conditions, the high level of sunlight, and the large amount of underground salt water.

Sapphire has an $8-million research facility in Las Cruces that’s experimenting with algae cells, breeding algae that is adapted to the region.

Sapphire’s production facilities will be capable of expanding and growing easily and economically because production is modular, transportable, and fueled by sunlight – not constrained by land, crops, or other natural resources. The company aims to produce Green Crude at a commercial scale within three to five years.

Additionally on May of this year (2011) Sapphire Energy and The Linde Group, announced that they have entered into a multi-year agreement to co-develop a low-cost system to deliver carbon dioxide (CO2) to commercial-scale, open-pond, algae-to-fuel cultivation systems. Linde, the leading merchant CO2 supplier in the US, will partner with Sapphire Energy, to reduce the costs associated with the delivery of anthropogenic CO2 for commercial-scale open pond algae cultivation. In addition, Linde will supply all of the CO2 to Sapphire’s developing commercial demonstration facility in Columbus, New Mexico.

While growing outdoors in ponds poses some challenges, it also is potentially the least expensive means of growing large quantities of oil filled pond scum… or green crude as Sapphire likes to call it.

Solazyme

Solazyme Inc. (NASDAQ: SZYM), founded in 2003 and based in South San Francisco, is a publicly held industrial biotechnology company specializing in the production of algal fuel for use in ground and air transportation. The company is very much in the news now, having just completed a successful (May 2011) IPO that sold 11 million shares at $18 each to raise about $198 million. It is currently (June 2011) trading just above $20. Because only a fraction of its shares were sold in the IPO its market cap is currently worht more than one billion dollars.

Solazyme’s engineered algae produce various oils and biochemicals that can be tailored for biofuel production or as biotechnology replacements for petrochemicals and plant oils in a range of products ranging from fuels, chemicals, cosmetics, and food additives.

They have pioneered an industrial biotechnology platform that harnesses the prolific oil-producing ability of certain strains of microalgae. Their process uses standard industrial fermentation equipment to efficiently scale and accelerate the microalgae’s natural oil production time to just a few days, and the platform is feedstock flexible being able to utilize a wide variety of plant-based sugars, such as sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose, and sugar from other biomass sources including cellulosics.

Unlike other algal biofuel companies that are attempting to grow algae in sunlight Solazyme has chosen a different path and grows their proprietary microalgae in the absence of light and instead rely on fermentation. By choosing this method they are able to avoid a host of issues that other algal biofuel companies must face. They require only a small fraction of the water needed by pond based algal biofuel; there is no need to feed their little bugs with CO2 (though there is a need to feed them with copious amounts of sugar, which raises the food to fuels issue faced by corn ethanol for example.); and because their growth environment is controlled the risk of contamination is reduced.

The company claims that it plans to replace the food derived sugars it is now using with sugars derived from cellulose and has inked a supply agreement with second generation pioneer BlueFire Energy for this non-food derived supply.

Its fuels are the first algal-derived fuels to be successfully road-tested in blended and unblended forms for thousands of miles in unmodified vehicles. They are compatible with existing infrastructures, meet current US and European fuel specifications, and can be used with factory-standard diesel engines without modification.

The company has announced partnerships with Chevron, Unilever, Dow Chemical, the US Navy, and Quantas Airlines.

Synthetic Genomics

Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) is a privately-held company, headquartered in in La Jolla, California and founded in 2005 by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D, Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith, M.D., Juan Enriquez and David Kiernan, M.D., J.D. In 2006 SGI raised its Series A round of financing from Draper Fisher Juvetson, Meteor Group, Biotechonomy LLC and Plenus, S.A. de C.V. In 2007 SGI closed its Series B round of financing with BP plc and ACGT Sdn Bhd. The company is dedicated to using modified or synthetically produced microorganisms to produce the alternative fuels ethanol and hydrogen.

In January 2011 SGI raised an additional $35 million of funding and has received funding from
Draper Fisher Juvetson, Meteor Group, Biotechonomy, BP. In addition it has a $300 million agreement for basic research into algal biofuels that it has made with Exxon/Mobile.

SGI is currently working in three broad projects areas in synthetic biology: algal biofuels, microbial enhanced hydrocarbon recovery, and developing advanced plant feedstocks and microbial agents for agriculture.

It has an alliance with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company to develop algal biofuels derived renewable fuels and chemicals, in which it is focusing on designing metabolic pathways for the production of biochemicals and next generation biofuels from a variety of feedstocks. In this area of work SGI is applying its cutting-edge synthetic biology tools to develop new microbial solutions to convert cellulosic biomass into advanced fuels and chemicals in a simple and cost-effective, one-step conversion process, known as Consolidated Bio-processing (CBP).

SGI and ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) have established a multi-year research and development strategic alliance focused on exploring the most efficient and cost effective ways to produce next generation biofuels using engineered photosynthetic algae.

In July of 2010 SGI opened a pilot facility that moves its algal biofuel project from a laboratory setting into an environment that better reflects real-world conditions for algae production. SGI and ExxonMobil researchers are currently using the facility to determine whether large-scale quantities of fuel can be produced from algae in an economically feasible manner. In the greenhouse facility, different growth systems for algae will be examine, including open ponds and closed photobioreactors. The various strains of algae being explored (including both natural and engineered strains), will be examined in these different growth systems under a wide range of conditions, including varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations. Research will also be conducted into other aspects of the algae fuel production process, including harvesting and the bio-oil recovery operations.

If the various research and development milestones are successfully met, ExxonMobil has announced its intent to invest more than $600 million on the algae biofuels programs over the next decade, half of which will be allocated to SGI.

The next major milestone in the program, expected in mid-2011, is the opening of an outdoor test facility.

In the second area it is pursuing, to develop microbial-enhanced hydrocarbon recovery, SGI is collaborating with BP to develop biological solutions to increase the conversion and recovery rates of subsurface hydrocarbons. In this area SGI is developing microbial enhanced hydrocarbon recovery and conversion solutions for the production of fuels and chemicals from vast reserves of dispersed hydrocarbons such as shale oil deposits. In addition SGI is applying the latest genomic tools to understand microbial life in the subsurface and to develop commercial solutions that improve the recovery rates of natural gas from the coal seams.

Finally SGI is collaborating with the Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology, a company focused on the commercial application of genome technology to improve oil palm and other crops, to develop synthetic biology derived sustainable agricultural products; where it is focused on developing advanced plant feedstocks and microbial agents for agriculture. Recently the partnership has focused its research on Jatropha for several reasons: it is a tropical tree that is one of the highest yielding oilseed plants in the world; it can be grown on marginal, non-food producing lands; has a very short generation time; can be productive for 30 to 40 years; and its seed oil and biomass are ideal for biofuel production. The genome for both palm oil and Jatropha have been sequenced.

Our related post “NASA Wants to Bag Biofuel From Sewage“, read about how NASA has proposed an ingenious process to grow algal biofuels in the ocean enclosed within large floating bags made of a special semi-permeable clear plastic membrane.


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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

  • Bruce Walck

    I suggest that you add Intrexon to your short list. These folks have a scalable DNA Lego set already built. Potential across many platforms(human health, crops, bio fuels, bio-chemistry etc). Think Henry Ford meets Moore’s Law.

    Privatly held but big $$$ behind them(run by RJ Kirk) . I suspect the name will be popping up quite frequently in the coming years as the platform’s potential is made apparant through partnering deals. .

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  • Theresa

    Unsafe and Unethical – for debate

    I think many academics and
    consumers think new technologies are racing ahead unregulated and
    ignoring the precautionary principle. I am not a scientist (but have read around various subjects) and need to
    do some more reading, but my guess is that those involved be they
    scientists (who often know little outside their field and are dependent
    on funding – THIS IS A FACT), investors and power elites do not really
    understand ecology and ethical geopolitical issues. There needs to be a
    debate. That is why I was surprised to see the author was interested in
    organic farming and permaculture.

    Very puzzling indeed.

    I will try and contact the author and provide him with some alternative view points and information.

    Solar Energy, peak and conflict minerals – it all needs to be debated.

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    great information, fantastic to read.