In October 2021, Synthetic Genomics, Inc. changed its name to Viridos, Inc. to signal a transition toward a more focused business model. The company name at founding (in 2005) reflected a broader emphasis on cutting-edge genomic research. The change to Viridos, (referencing the Latin word viridis, meaning green, fresh, and lively), signals the new focus of deploying our genomic expertise to create transformative solutions to mitigate climate change.
Founded in 2005, the company was a pioneer in synthetic biology. We transplanted the first genome, synthesized the first bacterial genome, and created the first synthetic cell. Our work generated more than 100 patents (issued and pending) and numerous spinoffs, including platforms for protein-based and mRNA-based therapeutics, bacteriophage engineering, cell engineering for organ transplantation, nutritional proteins and oils from algae, as well as the world’s first automated DNA printer. These achievements are evidence of the company’s best-in-class genomic expertise.
The California Advanced Algal Facility (CAAF) is our pilot facility. It was established in 2018 in California’s Imperial Desert to test and farm algae strains optimized for biofuel production. CAAF provides an outdoor, real-world environment where we can validate our lead strains are for productivity and robustness and develop and perfect agronomic practices tailored to algae.
We are committed to addressing sustainability using our algae bioengineering platform. Potential examples include:
- Optimization of use of the residual carbohydrate and protein rich biomass after algae oil extraction – a valuable and sustainable resource with potential uses as low carbon fuel, feedstock, or animal feed
- Bioengineering of microalgae to suppress methane emissions in ruminants
- Replacement of seafood protein with sustainably grown microalgae protein
- Replacement of fish oils, (which are really algae oils), with sustainably grown algae oils
- Biopolymers from microalgae
- Application of our photosynthetic efficiency optimization to terrestrial crops
After 12 years of research in the lab and outdoor piloting, Viridos has now achieved levels of algae oil productivity for biofuel production never seen before and at a scale larger than any other program. We continue to work on increasing the yield-per-acre, agronomics of the crop, downstream processing, and system integration.
Viridos’ algal biofuel has the potential to deliver a 70%+ reduction in GHG emissions over the fossil fuels it displaces. Additionally, Viridos’ algal strains are grown in the desert using predominantly saltwater, thus minimizing the need for arable land and freshwater: an all-around sustainable solution.
Compared to fossil fuels the Viridos algae-based biofuels are expected to have a carbon intensity that is 70%+ lower than that of fossil fuels. Contrary to fossil fuels, where carbon that is currently sequestered underground is released into the atmosphere as a GHG when it is burned, biofuels convert CO2 that is already in atmosphere into fuel. The deployment of more extensive use of renewable energy in the farming of the algae and the refining of the algae oil could reduce Viridos algae biofuels’ carbon intensity even more
Furthermore, we project that upon reaching target performance, the fully loaded cost to produce a gallon of renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel using Viridos’ microalgal technology will make “our” fuel among the most cost competitive options to decarbonize heavy duty transportation.
But high-energy density fuels contribute more than half of the 24% of global greenhouse gases emitted by the transportation sector. With estimates suggesting that we’ll consume 50% more energy by 2050 than we do today, and with no viable alternative to liquid fuels, finding a sustainable path forward to decarbonize heavy duty transportation is critical to meeting climate change mitigation goals.
In developing strains, we use precise molecular biology techniques to genetically engineer microalgae. Our lead strains are optimized to produce oils, a product of microalgae, at much higher levels than natural strains. When in a natural environment, our engineered algae are at a metabolic disadvantage to compete with native algal species and do not exhibit the ability to establish themselves in natural ecosystems. Without the nutritional support, CO2 supply, and careful management while being cultivated, our strains have no growth advantage. Our strains are optimized to perform well in contained farming operations, not in the open environment. Furthermore, our engineered strains show minimal dispersal in water, soil, and air, and they die quickly as soon as they dry out in the air or on soil.
Since our algae are engineered to primarily consist of oil, the majority of the biomass produced goes to the product. Non-engineered wild type algae would have to generate multiples of biomass that would lead to wasting of substantial resources like fertilizers. Based on our process-engineering calculations, an output of 1,000,000 bbl./day of algal jet fuel, representing 14% of the current demand for jet fuel, would not impact global raw material supplies. It would use well under 1% of global annual nitrogen (urea) production and phosphorus (phosphate) production.
Our microalgae strains are optimized to thrive in waters ranging from brackish to twice as saline than ocean water. Biofuel facilities based on our technology can draw ocean water and draw water and nutrients from brackish waters and those impaired by agricultural runoff. Algae farms can be sited near an ocean and use minimal amounts of freshwater to balance pond salinity.
After extracting oil from the microalgae, the leftover biomass is primarily protein and carbohydrate that can be turned into valuable co-products, such as animal feed and additional energy products. The refining of algal oil is highly selective towards diesel/jet fuel. Small quantities of naphtha and fuel gas (mainly propane) are produced and can be also monetized. The conversion of sunlight and CO2 into algal biomass generates very limited waste streams. We anticipate a discharge of purified and treated water/brine necessary to maintain salinity levels. Given the controlled, close loop nature of the water cycle, the algae farming operation will not generate substantial nutrient run-offs, as is the case for terrestrial crops.
Viridos’ microalgae are farmed on non-arable land using saline water. After harvesting and dewatering, high quality vegetable oils (lipids) are extracted from the crop and refined to drop-in renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel using existing and proven biofuel refining technology. The residual biomass is further processed and can be used in a number of high volume or high value applications under development.
Viridos’ algal strains are grown in saltwater, minimizing the need for freshwater. Avoiding competition for valuable freshwater resources reinforces the sustainability of the algal biofuel production process. Our microalgae strains are optimized to live in waters ranging from brackish to twice ocean salinity. Our biofuel facility can also draw water and nutrients from brackish waters and those impaired by agricultural runoff. Biofuel facilities can be sited near an ocean and use freshwater only to balance water salinity.
Upon meeting our technology performance targets, we anticipate algae biofuels delivering strong profitability in the current market for heavy duty transportation fuel and decarbonization.
Our work with ExxonMobil has led to the development of a technology set that delivers an “Energy Return per Energy Invested” ratio of approx. 2.5. That means that every unit of energy “invested” in the conversion of sunlight and CO2 to algal biofuels yields 2.5 units of energy as biofuel. Furthermore, we obtain an “Energy Return per Fossil Energy Invested” ratio of approx. 5. This metric correlates well with the carbon intensity score (i.e., the carbon footprint and GHG reduction potential) of the fuel. Increasing the share of renewable energy used in the conversion can further increase the Energy Return per Fossil Energy Invested.
With the current technology set that we developed with ExxonMobil, our algal biofuel delivers approximately a 70% reduction in GHG emissions over the fossil fuels it displaces. And increasing the share of renewable energy used in the conversion can lower the carbon footprint of Viridos algal biofuels even further.
We also believe that the energy transition demands more than one technology and that there is ample room and need for multiple approaches. We welcome new technologies that in some cases may even be synergistic with what we are undertaking. For example, direct air capture could be a complementary technology allowing Viridos algae farms to be fed with CO2 captured directly from the air in situations where CO2 sequestration is not readily viable.
Since 2009, ExxonMobil and Viridos have partnered in researching and developing oil from algae to be used as a renewable, lower-emission alternative to traditional transportation fuels. A key objective of the ExxonMobil-Viridos collaboration has been to increase the lipid content of algae while decreasing the starch and protein components without inhibiting the algae’s growth.
In the early 2000’s there was international interest about the potential for algae as an energy source. Many major energy companies jumped on the bandwagon and invested initial sums of money. But for most, it did not pan out and they ultimately abandoned the effort. ExxonMobil and Viridos succeeded where others failed, primarily because of Viridos’ genomic expertise, as well as ExxonMobil’s enduring financial commitment, and the patience needed to develop the genomic tools and understanding of the fundamental biology to achieve the productivity breakthroughs we are now seeing. ExxonMobil believes that “algae offer some of the greatest promise for next-generation biofuels,” which is why they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in algae research and remain committed to bringing this technology to scale.
The long-standing partnership with ExxonMobil provides the engineering prowess needed to build large-scale projects, the integration with synergistic technologies, as well as market access and global reach. Over the past 12-years, ExxonMobil has remained committed to our collaboration
This claim is not accurate. After 12 years of research in the lab and outdoor piloting, Viridos has achieved sufficient technological breakthroughs, improved scalability, and affordability to warrant moving from pilot to a demonstration facility. Today, Viridos’ research has produced levels of algae oil productivity never achieved, at a scale 1,000x larger than any other program. At scale, Viridos’ algae biofuels will lead to a 70% reduction in GHG emissions over petroleum-derived fuels for aviation, rail, and marine shipping.