Fatty Algae May Be Key Player In Replacing Fossil Fuels

Fatty Algae May Be Key Player In Replacing Fossil Fuels
Updated 11 months ago

It's no secret that fossil fuels are bad for the planet. The emissions they cause contribute to climate change, and extracting them can also have an adverse effect on the environment. For these reasons, many scientists around the world have sought to create a more sustainable type of fuel, made in whole or part from organic materials. But although biofuels, as such fuels are called, have been produced in many different variations, making them widely available has proven tricky. 

One factor is cost. Creating biofuel reliable enough for a mass market can be a lengthy and involved process, which means that such fuel would need to cost more than traditional gasoline. But what if scientists were able to create an organic material that wasn't difficult to maintain or produce, and was energy-efficient enough to rival traditional fuels? Scientists in San Diego believe they may have created such a material, in the form of a genetically-modified fatty algae.

Scientists from Exxon Mobile joined with scientists from Synthetic Genomics to create the specialized algae strain. According to Imad Ajjawi of Synthetic Genomics, what makes this strain special is its ability to produce more oil than other, similar algae, while still growing at a rapid rate. 

The secret, according to Ajjawi, is in the algae's fat. The more fat an algae has, the more oil it will naturally produce. He and other scientists made sure that this algae would be particularly fatty, and thus able to produce more oil and energy, by using a gene-editing tool to turn off the algae's fat-regulating genes. The results have been incredible. 

"We realized that it was making a ton of fat. It was actually off the charts. I remember being in the lab, talking to one of the [research assistants] and asking him to show me the data. We were both wondering where the data point was for that specific strain, and it turns out that it was literally off the scale," Ajjawi tells KPBS. 

This breakthrough is particularly notable considering that, when Ajjawi first joined Synthetic Genomics seven years ago, one of the company's main goals was to double algae's oil production without hindering its growth. With this latest development, that goal has been squarely achieved. So how long until biofuels produced with such algae will power our vehicles on a regular basis? 

According to Greg Mitchell, Associate Director of UC San Diego's California Center for Algae Biotechnology, it may still be a while. As he explains to KPBS, "At some local gas stations, we could be doing it within five years, at small scale. But if we're talking about the USA — a couple hundred million people doing it — it's many decades away. The deployment at scale is not there yet. That's going to take quite a bit more time. And it may not be this organism, but this points the direction of how we could go." 

According to Ajjawi, this attitude of cautious optimism is echoed by Synthetic Genomics as well as their partners, Exxon Mobil, who are invested in staying on top of developing fuel technologies. "With disruptive technologies such as this, you really can't set a timeline," Ajjawi explains to KPBS. "You have to be patient. And that's the good part about having Exxon Mobil as a partner. They recognized that and knew that we needed to be patient in order to achieve success."

News'Make America Green Again' Is A New Campaign To Bring Back 'Victory Gardens'

Back in the 1940's, "Victory Gardens" were a massive effort to boost produce growth that helped feed communities and troops. They're making a return now to combat carbon emissions, and Green America has set a goal to double the amount of gardens than before.

By Brian Spaen
1 day ago
NewsCosta Rica Plans To Eliminate Fossil Fuels By 2021

Costa Rica's new president, Carlos Alvarado, plans to eliminate the country's carbon footprint by banning fossil fuels by 2021. While the timeline seems unrealistic, the country is close to fully running on renewable energy, but they have to fix their transportation infrastructure.

By Brian Spaen
6 days ago
Travel10 Stunning Hotels From Around The World That Run On Renewable Energy

From Fiji to Africa, hotels all over the world are turning to renewable energy sources like geothermal heating and solar panels. These ten properties offer a green destination for eco-conscious travelers looking to keep their carbon footprints light.

By Desiree Kaplan
1 week ago
NewsU.S. Investors Seek Opportunities For Green Energy In Africa

For the last five years, "Power Africa" has been the push toward investing into energy growth for the second most-populous continent. Launching a revised campaign in March, they're looking to enhance the infrastructure in various countries and to receive more investments from US companies.

By Brian Spaen
1 week ago
Stay Green
Sign up for our newsletter