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BP jumps into race for algae-based biofuels

green-bacteria-fractalsComing on the heels of ExxonMobil’s announcement that it’s pursuing a genetically-modified algal biofuel, BP has now also launched a joint venture to develop microbial oils for biofuels.

BP and Martek Biosciences Corporation will work together with the goal of developing a step-change technology for the conversion of sugars into biodiesel.

Under the terms of the multi-year agreement, Martek and BP aim to establish proof of concept for large-scale, cost effective microbial biodiesel production through fermentation.

“Martek is pleased to partner with BP’s Alternative Energy team, to combine our unique algae-based technologies and intellectual property for the creation of sustainable and affordable technology for microbial biofuel production,” said Steve Dubin, CEO of Martek. “BP’s global leadership and commitment to alternative energy solutions complements Martek’s own commitment to responsible and sustainable products and production.”

“As an alternative to conventional vegetable oils, we believe sugar-to-diesel technology has the potential to deliver economic, sustainable and scaleable biodiesel supplies,” said Philip New, CEO of BP Biofuels. “In partnering with Martek, we combine the world’s leading know-how in microbial lipid production with our expertise in fuels markets and applications, and our more recent experience in biofuels production and commercialisation.”

New added, “This technology is also a perfect fit with our other strategic choices for biofuels, all based on sustainable feedstocks and fermentation to produce advanced biofuels. It is part of our approach of integrating sugar cane and lignocellulosic biofuels with advanced technologies to produce products with a wide range of uses.”

BP has agreed to contribute up to $10 million to this initial phase of the collaboration which leverages Martek’s expertise in microbial oil production and BP’s production and commercialisation experience in biofuels as the platform for the joint development effort. Martek will perform the biotechnology research and development associated with this initial phase, whilst BP will contribute to its integration within the biofuels value chain. Each company will be entitled to certain commercial payments from technology commercialised in the other firm’s field.

The sugar-to-biodiesel scheme converts sugars derived from biomass into lipids using unique fermentation micro-organisms; the lipids are then converted into fuel molecules through chemical or thermocatalytic processes.

Biodiesel produced from sustainable feedstocks via the fermentation of sugars will offer the potential to deliver greenhouse gas emission reductions of up to 80 – 90 per cent when compared to traditional fossil fuel. Other advantages of the sugar-to-biodiesel approach include:

  • Access to a wide variety of biomass feedstocks such as sugar cane, sugar cane waste (bagasse), energy grass and woodchips, which can be produced at scale and in high yield;
  • Use of sustainable, non-food, plant biomass as feedstock;
  • Ability to tailor the product for a variety of diesel and jet-fuel needs; and
  • Reduced exposure to vegetable oil price variations.

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