January 18, 2009

3G in biofuels...

In the latest issue of Nature Biotech there is an interesting article written by Emily Waltz called Biotech’s Green Gold. The article starts by the interesting observation that more than a 100 third generation biofuel companies (so-called algae-to-fuel companies) have popped up during the last few years worldwide, but not a single commercial facility has been built.

Promising prospectives
So what is the reason for this recent trend? The main reason seems to be that algae have the potential to produce up to ten times more oil per acre than traditional biofuel crops while they are not needed for human food (such as 1st generation biofuels e.g. corn). Moreover, they have the capability to survive where most other agricultural crops could not live such as in salt water and municipal waste water. Algae are interesting from an intellectual property and business development perspective as in addition to fuels, valuable co-products, such as biopolymers, proteins and animal feed can be made during the process in addition to application potential in industries such as nutraceuticals and cosmetics.

Third generation biofuel industry
The article states that only a handful of companies are working with genetically modified algae, albeit they are some of the most serious and promising in the algae-to-fuel industry. Companies presented include Aurora Biofuels, Algenol, Sapphire Energy, Solarvest BioEnergy, Solazyme and Synthetic Genomics. However, the norms and structural claims in this industry are obviously at a very dynamic development stage due to the infancy of the industry, but there is already some interesting implicit IP activity taking place. It is stated in the article that open source sequencing and publication of the algae genomics is not being made due to the algae importance to biofuels. This could easily be interpreted as a very closed approach to innovation, but towards the end of the article there is a section stating that Ron Pate, a researcher at Sandia national Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is trying to put together an organization of industry, academia and Universities, which in his own words is to create “an open but intellectual property-friendly environment where people can discuss technologies and report R&D problems”. This sounds a lot like an informal standardization group which hopefully leads to synergistic collective development through a more controlled structural openness.

It will be interesting to follow this industry since approximately 200 000 algae exist and less than 1/4 of these have been described and characterized at present. There is also an interesting discussion going on about where it makes the most economical sense to grow algae - in open ecosystems (e.g. oceans) or in closed bioreactors. Will this be what we will rely on when we run out of oil?

Tobias Thornblad

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