Humanity’s appetite for energy continues to grow unabated. Estimates suggest that we’ll consume 50% more energy by 2050 than we do today. The combustion of fossil fuels constitutes nearly a third of this increase. As a major contributor to greenhouse gases, this growing demand for energy is changing our climate in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
Progress has been made in the transition to renewable energy, such as with solar and wind power. But these can’t address the high-energy density requirements for heavy transportation, such as aviation, commercial trucking, rail, and marine shipping. Liquid fuels will remain the predominant energy source for these industries for the foreseeable future.
With no viable solution for decarbonizing these industries, finding a sustainable path forward is critical to meeting climate-change mitigation goals. The dilemma is how to slow and ultimately halt rising atmospheric temperatures and air pollution while at the same time meeting the energy needs of a growing global population.
We believe that high-energy density algae biofuel for heavy transportation is part of the answer. By establishing this non-resource intensive, breakthrough solution deployed at a global scale, we can recalibrate heavy transportation toward a more sustainable future and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 70%.
We are developing an advanced algal strain and agronomic platform to produce algal biofuels for deploying at scale. By capitalizing on well-established regulatory programs that incentivize adoption, such as the RFS and LCFS in the US, and the Renewable Energy Directive in Europe, we can make the adoption of algal biofuels more attractive and establish a more level playing field.
Most gasoline sold in the US today contains some level of first-generation biofuel (ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soy). But yield improvements and productivity gains of these terrestrial crops are plateauing. And as energy demands increase, food security and resource constraints (land and water) pose significant challenges for continued production of first-generation biofuels.
This is where the advantages of microalgae kick in. Microalgae are excellent at converting CO2 and sunlight into oil-rich biomass, especially when compared to land-based crop plants like oil palm and soy. By adapting microalgae to function as cell factories producing energy-dense oils that can easily be refined into renewable diesel and jet fuel, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%.
We utilize sunlight and atmospheric CO2 to grow the algae for oil as a replacement for burning fossil fuels (which release new carbon previously stored underground). Additionally, by farming in saltwater on marginal land, we avoid competing with resources required for food production, such as arable farmland and freshwater. We estimate that at commercialization, the productivity of engineered microalgae will be 20x times greater than any existing terrestrial crop. This dramatic advantage underpins the scalability of our technology.
The road to developing algae into fuel has been challenging and many initial efforts struggled to demonstrate the feasibility of scaling. The two fundamental issues that have been holding the field back are oil productivity and scalability.
1. Oil Productivity. To account for economic cost to build algae farms, the algae deployed have to be extremely productive. We need as much oil output for a given surface area as possible.
2. Scalability. Productivity improvements start in the lab. But having highly productive lab strains doesn’t matter if they cannot be grown outdoors under the harsh conditions of desert environments with high temperature fluctuations, storms, and environmental factors that can severely impair crop yields.
At Viridos, we have been systematically addressing both issues and achieved many breakthroughs along the way. With the help of ExxonMobil, we conducted an extensive basic algae biology research program that allowed us to understand the genomics, metabolism, and regulation of algal physiology that is fundamental to designing the high performing strains needed to reach commercial scale.
One breakthrough was our discovery in 2015 of the gene that is a lipid switch, subsequently published in 2017 in Nature Biotechnology, allowing us to modify microalgae to grow both biomass and enriching the oil content of the algae – something never achieved before. That laid the foundation: producing high oil yield algae.
Subsequently, we realized that this breakthrough alone is not sufficient. We need to incorporate multiple traits of interest that add stepwise improvements. This led us to develop our genome editing and marker recycling technologies, which allow us to add traits of interest in microaglae without limitation, published in PNAS in 2018
With these technologies in hand, and as we learn more about the microalgae we work with, we have been able to drive oil productivities to new highs year after year. Our breakthroughs have paved the way to achieve a promising trajectory of productivity improvements we believe will not stop anytime soon.
With improvements in our oil productivity, the next step was taking the algae out of the lab to face the harsh conditions of the real world and address the scalability challenge. Many earlier outdoor algae farming efforts, including our own, were besieged by failure. Unpredictable environmental conditions and predation of outside organisms led to decimation of algae cultures and have been the bane of many algae farming efforts. We recognized those barriers and therefore screened thousands of microalgae from our collection to find a naturally occurring robust microalgae that had no impact on the environment. Using this robust natural strain as a foundation, we engineered traits of interest into it and tested multiple improved versions at our California Advanced Algae Facility (CAAF) over the years – with remarkable success.
We have extensively validated the algae strains of interest at CAAF with our comprehensive sensor network, data analysis, and scaled down systems, and have demonstrated impressive productivity increases. In our open ponds, we have achieved 7 times the oil productivity compared to where we started, these accomplishments give us a lot of excitement for future progress and lay the foundation for scalability.
Viridos’ vision is to provide scalable algae biofuels through higher algae oil productivity and advanced agronomy. As we move closer to commercialization, we are developing the systems and processes that will enable us and our partners to deploy farms thousands of acres in size. This will be the tipping point at which algae biofuel becomes an essential, scalable, and cost-competitive tool to mitigate climate change.
Over the last five years we have grown our top producing algal strains at our California Advanced Algal Facility (CAAF). The environmental conditions of CAAF allows for a realistic outdoor testbed/pilot facility that tests the limits of our strains and operational processes. Testing strains at CAAF enabled the following critical achievements and insights that now drive our progress forward.
We are now applying the lessons learned from CAAF to guide our research teams in their development of next generation strains and technology to increase algal bio-oil productivity. Using our state of the art algal engineering, bioinformatics and system biology tools we continue to iterate on our top producing algal strains by stacking new traits and modifying key metabolic pathways. The data collected from SNAP drives our pond simulator capability, which allows us to mimic CAAF systems and operations and evaluate a strain’s outdoor cultivation potential more efficiently. Our fleet of pond simulators yield enough biomass to allows us to work on down-stream refine processes.
Viridos’ algal biofuel delivers a 70% reduction in GHG emissions over the fossil fuels it displaces. And sourcing renewable energy for the operations lowers the carbon footprint of algal biofuels even further.
Viridos’ algal strains are grown in salt water, minimizing the need for freshwater. Avoiding competition for valuable freshwater resources reinforces the sustainability of the algal biofuel production process.
Arable land in warm climates with adequate water supply is increasingly scarce. Viridos’ deployment partners will farm microalgae without the use of freshwater in locations preserving valuable land for food and feed production, reinforcing global food security.
When Direct Air Capture (DAC) becomes available, it could be used synergistically with Viridos microalgae farming. This may even enhance the adoption of DAC, since Viridos microalgae can thrive on less enriched CO2 than typically required for efficient carbon sequestration, thus making DAC more economically viable when coupled with Viridos algae biofuel production.
Our algae are natural strains that we precisely genetically engineer to enhance biomass and lipid productivity. We use cutting-edge science to select and develop the strains and then carefully monitor how they fit in the natural ecosystem, ensuring ecological harmony. The algae are grown in contained aquaculture and efficiently utilize the nutrients provided. This minimizes nutrient run-off into the environment and prevents eutrophication . With advance sensor technology and data processing we can use safe proactive pest management strategies to achieve a more favorable environmental footprint compared to conventional farming.
The CO2 algae thrive on can come from a wide range of sources, including industrial polluters that have few options to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions. This creates a CO2 recycling opportunity for emissions from gas processing facilities, cement factories, refiners, power generators, and other heavy industry as we can convert their waste CO2 into valuable algae oil while lowering overall GHG emissions
The acreage required for growing microalgae is less than a tenth of that needed for other crops used for biofuels, such as corn, palm, and soy, making the scalability of producing biofuel more viable.
By creating a "drop-in" algal biofuel that can be blended with or used instead of fossil fuel, we can achieve rapid adoption while dramatically reducing carbon emissions. End users can switch to a low-carbon fuel without having to replace their equipment.
Crude oil is a complicated mixture of hydrocarbons with varying composition, heavy metal, and impurities that require extensive refining. Our microalgae produce clean plant oils that can be easily converted to fuel without extensive processing and clean-up.
Heavy transportation requires diesel or jet fuel which is only a small fraction of the composition of crude oil. Our algae oil is predominantly comprised of carbon chain lengths that can be converted with minimal undesirable refining byproducts into the desired drop-in jet or diesel fuel.
In addition to oils, farming microalgae also produces protein and carbohydrate co-products. Capturing and converting these valuable outputs enables us to minimize waste, seed other sustainable business opportunities, and generate additional revenue.