Monday, July 27, 2009

Synthetic Genomics - the Sci-Fi and the Promise

Synthetic Genomics, an R&D think-tank, is opening a $600 million R&D Center with Exxon. This is shocking because Exxon has been hard-core in ignoring alternative energy. Synthetic Genomics has already lined up financing with BP. What has attracted biofuel opponent Exxon to an odd-ball technology like algae biofuel?

I, myself, have criticized algae energy as a fantasy. (This post has economics per acre of different biofuel crops.)

Synthetic Genomics' name comes from founder Craig Venter's science fiction idea of stitching together genes & other cellular structures to make "artificial organisms" as little biochemical factories, according to geneticist Paul Arnold. They have the patent on synthetic organism.

This reminds me of science fiction movies, like Blade Runner. Scary or not this technology could be pretty cool.

This is the same Craig Venter whose "shotgun" sequencing technology grabbed patents at the end of the human genome project.

Hard-boiled Exxon would never buy into Sci-Fi fantasy. The real JV is much more modest. It has a pretty straight forward six step plan. Synthetic Genomics will be developing an algae strain optimized for lipid (oil) production. They will separate the algae, and then make biodiesel from it.

Algae biofuel is not new. Wikipedia has an extensive entry, and this site has fifteen algae energy start-ups.

It seems that power hitters like Exxon, BP and Bill Gate through Sapphire Energy, and sinking money into this. There must be a clever technology that is making this economical. I could not find any Synthetic Genomics patents that would describe it. Maybe they are under another assignee.

(The guys in the photo of algae bioreactors are Kertz & Frater, who develop such equipment.)

See my follow-up posting on synthetic biology.