The new greenhouse. Click to enlarge.

ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics (SGI) have opened a new greenhouse facility at SGI headquarters in La Jolla, CA enabling the next level of research and testing in their algae biofuels program announced last July. (Earlier post.)

The new facility, opened at a ceremony today at the site, moves the project from a laboratory setting to an environment that SGI founder and CEO Dr. Craig Venter characterized as a “halfway house”—a facility in which SGI and ExxonMobil researchers can test whether developments from the lab bench can function in a larger contained environment that still begins to approximate real-world conditions for algae production.

Our vision is to produce a new source of oil from algae that we can process though existing refineries and deliver through existing distribution systems. The ExxonMobil SGI partnership is designed to test whether we can make this vision a reality.

—Dr. Emil Jacobs, Vice President Research & Development, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering

Algae strains in large photobioreactors are evaluated under varying conditions, including varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations. Click to enlarge.

In the greenhouse facility, researchers from ExxonMobil and SGI will examine different growth systems for algae, such as open ponds and closed photobioreactors. They will evaluate various algae, including both natural and engineered strains, in these different growth systems under a wide range of conditions, including varying temperatures, light levels and nutrient concentrations.

They will also conduct research into other aspects of the algae fuel production process, including harvesting and bio-oil recovery operations.

Things don’t always translate well from the lab bench to the scale that we need to literally supply billions of gallons of fuel is this is to have any impact at on shifting CO2 levels. Things that work well in the lab don’t always work well outside the lab—in fact, most of the time they don’t.

—J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and CEO for SGI

ExxonMobil and SGI researchers say they have made substantial progress since the program was announced last July, including:

  • Isolating and/or engineering a large number of candidate algal strains and developing growth conditions under which these strains could be made more productive. SGI scientists are seeking to optimize numerous characteristics, including the types of hydrocarbons produced, and in some cases excreted by the algae into the growth media.

    A key part of the genetic engineering, Dr. Venter noted, is determining the length of the hydrocarbon chains produced by the algae, and optimizing those for refining.

  • Identifying and testing some of the preferred design characteristics of the different production systems, including closed, open or photobioreactors; and

  • Initiating life cycle and sustainability studies to assess the impact of each step in the process on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.

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

If research and development milestones are successfully met, ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million on the algae biofuels program over the next decade, $300 million of which will be allocated to SGI.

SGI, a privately held company founded in 2005, is developing and commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address global energy and environment challenges. The company’s main research and business programs are currently focused on the following major bioenergy areas: designing advanced biofuels with superior properties compared to ethanol and biodiesel; harnessing photosynthetic organisms to produce value added products directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide; developing new biological solutions to increase production and/or recovery rates of subsurface hydrocarbons; and developing high-yielding, more disease resistant and economic feedstocks.