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."