Oliver Fetzer, CEO, Synthetic GenomicsOliver Fetzer, CEO
The story behind the looming climate crisis has many acts like in a play. The 1950s saw the inflection point of fossil fuel consumption. Ten years later, an exponential increase in atmospheric CO2, in direct correlation to the fuel consumption, followed suit. In 1975 the global temperature began to rise. To counter the detrimental impact of the fossil fuels and meet the increasing energy needs of the growing population, renewables such as wind and solar made their entry. However, quite a few applications that include planes, marine cargo, and heavy-duty road and rail transportation will continue to rely on diesel as opposed to electricity. Consequently, the search was on for a renewable and sustainable alternative to diesel, until Synthetic Genomics came into the picture. “We are on a mission to rescue our planet by designing algae to provide high energy density fuels to a growing population while reducing the carbon footprint by more than 50 percent,” says Dr. Oliver Fetzer, CEO of Synthetic Genomics.

Synthetic Genomics engineers biology for purpose. Scientists leverage the company’s in-depth know-how of the functioning of genomes and cells to enhance algae’s inherently high biomass productivity towards the production of sustainable, low carbon intensity biofuels. “It’s really exciting that the oils from our algae are in the 16 to 18 carbon chain length range, providing the perfect opportunity to convert the algal oils into diesel and even jet fuel,” explains Dr.Fetzer.

In the last 15 years, Synthetic Genomics has made significant breakthroughs in synthetic biology and has currently filed over 500 patents. To modify algae, Synthetic Genomics operates at the cellular level. The DNA is reprogrammed to effectively transform algal cells to be more productive and yield more oil than traditional algae. As a pioneer of many genomic breakthroughs, including the world’s first DNA printer, Synthetic Genomics can efficiently optimize algal cells to change their behavior. With its extraordinary genomic engineering capabilities, Synthetic Genomics has developed a tool for multiple editing of algal cells with high precision and predictability. “Like “Intel Inside,” we are “SGI Inside” creating the biological operating system that results in fat and fit algae exhibiting high productivity and up to 80 percent lipid content,” states Dr.Fetzer.
Interestingly, the company is working exclusively on saltwater algae and deploying them in the desert where it can use the abundant sunshine as its source of energy, CO2 as the carbon source, and saltwater to not strain precious freshwater resources or farmlands.

We are on a mission to help our planet by designing sustainable algae to provide high energy density fuels while reducing the carbon footprint by more than 50 percent

To translate science from the lab into a scalable solution, algae exhibiting the desired performance are tested in lab assays and at the company’s greenhouse. In the next step, the most promising algal strains are run at a larger scale at the company’s outdoor facility at the Salton Sea, California to confirm the improved performance in the real world. Our work throughout facilities and scales is conducted using best practices and following all relevant regulations “We know how to engineer the algae and optimize algal productivity, but ultimately to get to meaningful scale, we have partnered with ExxonMobil for deployment to pilot and commercial scale, capital, and engineering expertise,” says Dr.Fetzer.

ExxonMobil, a preeminent energy company, acts as a perfect complement to Synthetic Genomics by working on the engineering challenges including optimizing bioreactors, extracting oil from algae, and refining the oil, among others. Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil have collaboratively committed to the goal of producing 10,000 barrels of oil per day by 2025 and further scale to 450,000 barrels a day.

“Our short-term goal is to get to the tech readiness of translating all this made in the lab to work outdoors repeatedly, reliably, and with standard operating procedures that the workers at large outdoor farms can execute,” concludes Dr.Fetzer.