Published: Sept. 30, 2015

MSU partners with ExxonMobil to advance biofuel research

Contact(s): Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827, David Kramer Biochemistry and Molecular Biology office: (517) 432-0072, Christian Flathman ExxonMobil office: (832) 625-4000

A new $1 million relationship between Michigan State University and ExxonMobil will expand research designed to progress the fundamental science required to advance algae-based fuels.

David Kramer, MSU’s John Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at the MSU-DOE Plant and Research Laboratory, says that the overall goal of the partnership is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in microalgae to produce biofuels and bioproducts.

“Photosynthesis is the biological process that plants and algae use to store solar energy in biomass. It is how all our food is made, and we would starve without it,” said Kramer, who is leading the grant with Ben Lucker with the PRL and Joe Weissman, Distinguished Scientific Associate at ExxonMobil.

The key to bioenergy is the efficiency of photosynthesis, the process algae use to capture solar energy and the first step in converting the energy from the sun into a liquid fuel. Past research has shown that algae photosynthesis can be highly efficient under optimal conditions in the laboratory. Under realistic growth conditions however, this efficiency drops. There is a need to improve photosynthesis under simulated production environments.

“Fortunately, nature has provided us with a great potential for improvement. There are many different strains of algae that have adapted to work well in different environments,” Kramer said. “What we want to do is figure out how they are able to do this and what genes are responsible. With this knowledge, we can potentially combine traits to make strains that are more efficient even under harsh conditions.”

The project will take advantage of these natural variations as well as a suite of new technologies developed by the Kramer lab at PRL that allow rapid, high-throughput testing of photosynthetic efficiency of many algal lines under simulated growth conditions. One of these technologies, developed through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program) is a matrix of specialized chambers, called the environmental PhotoBioReactor, that allow algae to be studied in detail under simulated production environments.

The second Kramer lab technology, developed with support from the Photosynthetic Systems and Physical Biosciences programs at the DOE (Basic Energy Sciences program), is called PhotosynQ and is a network of portable sensors called MultispeQ that are being used by many researchers around the world to probe photosynthesis. These sensors allow the Kramer lab to measure the photosynthetic processes in many algal cultures at the same time under different conditions to learn why some strains are more efficient than others.

“Combining these technologies will allow us to determine which algae are the most efficient under a range of conditions,” Kramer said. “Then we can use a different set of technologies to figure out why they do better and which genes are responsible.”

This is just one example of how MSU is using technology to tackle real-world issues, said Charles Hasemann, MSU assistant vice president for innovation and economic development at the MSU Innovation Center.

“Partnerships with companies like ExxonMobil allow us to share resources and work together to find solutions to some of the world's most-challenging issues," he said.

ExxonMobil is a leader in funding and conducting research on advanced biofuels. Since 2009, ExxonMobil has continued to work with Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) on fundamental research to develop advanced algae biofuels options and identify the best pathways to make these groundbreaking technologies available to consumers.

ExxonMobil’s research with SGI, MSU and other entities are a part of the company’s overall research and investment in new technologies with the potential to increase energy supplies, reduce emissions and improve operational efficiencies.

“We know certain types of algae produce bio-oils,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “The challenge is to find and develop algae that can produce bio-oils at scale on a cost-efficient basis.”

Given the amount of fuel required just to satisfy U.S. road transportation demand, it would require a significant amount of algae to produce enough fuel to meet our country’s needs today. Based on current bio-oil productivity rates, it would take a significant area of land to be able to generate enough fuel to satisfy just 0.1 percent of the United States’ road transportation fuel needs for one year. Given these requirements, researchers are looking for ways to increase the oil productivity of algae.

ExxonMobil’s goal is to have algae bio-oils processed in its refineries to supplement crude oil as the raw material to manufacture gasoline, diesel, aviation fuels and marine fuels. In addition to fuels, the company also is examining potential applications for other products such as chemicals and lubricants.

“We continue to evaluate our best options for continued algae biology research as a part of a broad biofuels research effort. We are looking forward to working with Michigan State University on this project,” said Swarup. “Algae biofuels research and development is a long-term endeavor and we are partnering with some of the leading scientists in the fields to better understand the fundamental science and support their groundbreaking research.”

Who will? Spartans Will.
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