The Oil and the Glory

Craig Venter’s one-man algae fuels bubble

It’s good to be J. Craig Venter right now. In May, Venter — who you may recall from his entrepreneurial work in genomics research — created a stir in scientific circles by creating the first cell with synthetic DNA; Exxon, meanwhile, has gone on the hook for up to $600 million in funding for Venter’s ...

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It’s good to be J. Craig Venter right now. In May, Venter — who you may recall from his entrepreneurial work in genomics research — created a stir in scientific circles by creating the first cell with synthetic DNA; Exxon, meanwhile, has gone on the hook for up to $600 million in funding for Venter’s ambitious synthetic algae fuel project. In a piece over the weekend, The New York Times‘ Andrew Pollack has added some James Dean brushstrokes to the portrait of this “scientific rebel.” Shall we cut to the chase and start carving busts of the guy?

There’s no doubt that algae-based fuel is tantalizing — unlike crops, trees, the sun and wind, algae starts out already half-comprised of hydrocarbons useable for bio-diesel, as Debora MacKenzie writes at New Scientist. That’s why Silicon Valley, the Pentagon and serious oil companies are attempting to crack the code and scale up algae into a global transportation fuel. And if you ask the chin- and chest-out Venter, his own efforts are headed for tickertape-parade-type success: “Designing and building synthetic cells will be the basis of a new industrial revolution,” he told Pollack. “The goal is to replace the entire petrochemical industry.”

Them’s fighting words. However, I am intrigued by the doubts expressed by Jay Keasling, another member of the rock star scientist club examining the alternative fuel puzzle. “I don’t know how many decades his funders have given him,” Keasling says in the Pollack piece — meaning, bluntly, that, in Keasling’s view, the task that the 63-year-old Venter has set out for himself may exceed his time on Earth.

Algae fuel is being made, and used, but expensively. Over the summer, EADS, the Paris-based aviation company, flew one engine in a small two-engine plane on algae fuel. As Siobhan Warner wrote in The Engineer, EADS had to scour the entire globe in order to round up enough performance-grade algae fuel for this single flight. Jean Botti, EADS chief technical officer, told Warner:

I had to go all around the world to find the best guys that could deliver a good quality product that we could refine. This is why we had to fly a little airplane. I couldn’t fly on a large Airbus aircraft with those algaes because I did not have enough quantity for all the testing and certification.

More skepticism is aroused when one considers Exxon’s full-throated public relations effort on behalf of its investment. One of the world’s most conservative and secretive companies, Exxon generally releases data in such a manner not as a matter of course, but only when doing so serves a political purpose. In the weeks before Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, for example, CEO Rex Tillerson — dead certain like the rest of corporate America that cap-and-trade was coming — sought to distance Exxon further from the negative attention it attracted for funding the global-warming-is-a-hoax movement; Tillerson told a packed room at the Wilson Center in Washington that Exxon was backing a form of carbon pricing: a carbon tax. About a month before that, Exxon took out a full-page ad in the New York Times touting its work to advance batteries and electric cars. And then we have its super high-profile venture with Venter. I will be interested to watch Exxon’s PR activities now that the green movement is in retreat.

Venter gets the Mick Jagger treatment because of his past as a genomic guru. For some insight into why and how that translates over into the algae world, I emailed Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, the CEO of a competing algae company in California called LiveFuels. She at once zeroed in on the Keasling quote. “Jay is a rock star, but Craig is a galaxy.  No one on Earth has generated more important data than has Craig,” she said.

But Morgenthaler-Jones also poured cold water on the scaled-up potential for genetically modified algae. “When it comes to replacing petroleum, the whole discussion of synthetic cells is a red herring,” she said.

The truth is, neither [Venter nor Keasling] will succeed in replacing petroleum for many reasons, including the fact that [genetically modified organisms] are not as robust as wild species.  But what may be the biggest reason was covered by Foreign Policy months ago – the looming phosphate shortage.

Morgenthaler-Jones was referring to the requirement in algae production of huge volumes of phosphate, which is becoming scarce.

Morgenthaler-Jones’s husband, Dave, who is COO of LiveFuels, adds that algae companies, including Venter, cannot be assumed to be aiming at making fuel. Plastics, Jones says, earn much more money than biodiesel:

When (not if, because the proofs exist) we can convince algae (or yeast or bacteria) to make useful hydrocarbons, why would we make the lowest-value products (fuel)? It’s said that something like 5%-10% of a barrel of oil goes to the higher-value products (plastics, etc.). So if world-wide consumption of oil is about 30 billion barrels a year, 1.5 billion to 3 billion barrels goes to such products. That’s a pretty big set of markets to saturate before you waste time making fuel.

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