Most biofuels news is bad—our current national program incentivizes the production and consumption of corn-based ethanol that somehow manages to increase food prices, increase gas prices, hurt American refineries, and hurt the environment. It’s a boondoggle, plain and simple.
But not all biofuels are terrible. You can distill ethanol from cellulosic crops, an option that’s both green and beneficial to farmers. Scientists have also been working hard to figure out how to use algae to create oil, and as the FT reports, a team from ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics just made an algal breakthrough:
Scientists at Synthetic Genomics, the biotech company founded by genomics pioneer Craig Venter, used advanced genetic engineering to double the oil content of their algal strain from 20 to 40 per cent, without inhibiting its growth. The findings are published in Nature Biotechnology on Monday. […]
Previous attempts to boost the oil concentration in algae — an important step in biofuel production — failed because the cells stopped growing when they were overloaded with lipid. The new genetic process maintains growth until 40 per cent of the biomass consists of lipid, an industrially useful level.
Did you catch that last part? An industrially useful level. That’s a huge step forward for what to this point has been a fringe technology under the biofuels umbrella. It’s significant, too, that this technological breakthrough is coming to us courtesy of genetic engineering. Once again we’re seeing the enormous potential of GM technology made manifest.
This is also more egg on the face of the “peak oil” crowd, who just a decade ago were chiding the world for its dependence on the energy source and confidently telling us that the sky was ready to fall. It hasn’t. And technologies like hydraulic fracturing, horizontal well drilling, and maybe even algal biofuels look capable of thriving for decades to come.
In the near future, though, the sooner we see corn-based ethanol discarded as the awful fuel choice that it is, the better. Perhaps algae can help it on its way.