Viridos Inc. has signed a joint development agreement with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. The companies will work together to develop infrastructure and agronomic techniques for producing algal biofuels in commercial quantities.
The new legal arrangement is a significant moment for the algal biofuel sector, sharpening hopes for scaling the technology. Viridios’ CEO Dr. Oliver Fetzer has stated that they intend for the collaboration to “bring sustainable algae biofuels technology closer to commercial deployment”. The agreement allows room for other parties to access and develop the technology, with Fetzer stating that they “intend to broaden participation and invite others to build the ecosystem required for full-scale deployment”.
Viridos Inc. is a California-based biotechnology company specialising in algal genetic engineering. It was co-founded by American scientists Dr. J. Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith in 2005 under its former corporate name Synthetic Genomics. Venter is a genomics researcher who led the first draft sequences of the human genome. Hamilton O. Smith is a microbiologist and Nobel Prize Laureate. Currently, Viridos is focused on decarbonising heavy transportation through algal biofuels.
Viridos and ExxonMobil’s partnership in algal biofuel R&D began in 2009. In 2012, their researchers published a paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology championing algal biofuels as a low-carbon energy alternative. For years, Viridos and ExxonMobil had tried to increase algal lipid content and decrease starch and protein content without inhibiting algal growth rates. In 2017, Viridos researchers finally cracked the problem. By manipulating a genetic switch for regulating oil production, they were able to double lipid production in the algae species Nannochloropsis gaditana.
In 2018, ExxonMobil supported Viridos’ outdoor pilot programme, the California Advanced Algal Facility (CAAF). Algae strains were cultivated in the harsh conditions of the Imperial Desert in California to test for productivity and robustness.
The Viridos and ExxonMobil partnership has weathered a turbulent decade for the algal biofuel sector. Algal biofuel investment boomed from 2005 to 2008. Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron were among the largest players to enter the field. The 2008 market crash, however, brought the sector to its knees. Global investment in biofuel production dropped from £22.9 billion in 2007 to $500 million in 2019. While many algal biotechnology companies switched to beauty, nutraceutical, animal feed, and other low-volume applications, ExxonMobil and other major petroleum companies persisted in algal R&D. Viridos and ExxonMobil’s target is to produce 10, 000 barrels of algal biofuels a day by 2025.