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Exxon Mobil Partnership Advances Biofuel Research

A new $1 million collaboration between Michigan State University and ExxonMobil will expand research designed to advance the development and ultimately the production of algae-based fuels. 

David Kramer, MSU’s John Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at the MSU-DOE Plant and Research Laboratory (PRL), says that the overall goal of the partnership is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in microalgae to economically 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. “What we want to know is: how can we improve the process so that algae can save enough energy to power our cars as well as make products like plastics?” 

The key to bioenergy is the efficiency of photosynthesis, the process algae use to capture solar energy. Past research has shown that algae have efficient photosynthesis under optimal conditions in the laboratory. Under realistic growth conditions in algal production facilities however, their efficiency drops. We need to maintain and even improve photosynthesis under real production 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 potential of ePBRs led to a spin-off company, Phenometrics, launched by the MSU Innovation Center. The company is merely three years old, but steady orders for the bioreactors have the company already running in the black. 

“We know certain types of algae produce bio-oils. The challenge is to find and develop algae that can produce bio-oils at scale on a cost-efficient basis, said Vijay Swarup, Vice President of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, “Algae biofuels research and development is a long-term endeavor and we are partnering with the leading scientists in the fields to better understand the fundamental science and support their groundbreaking research.”