Regular Paper

Photosynthesis Research

, Volume 107, Issue 3, pp 269-277

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

A new dawn for industrial photosynthesis

  • Dan E. RobertsonAffiliated withBiological Sciences, Joule Unlimited Email author 
  • , Stuart A. JacobsonAffiliated withEngineering, Joule Unlimited
  • , Frederick MorganAffiliated withEngineering, Joule Unlimited
  • , David BerryAffiliated withFlagship VentureLabs
  • , George M. ChurchAffiliated withDepartment of Genetics, Harvard University, School of Medicine
  • , Noubar B. AfeyanAffiliated withFlagship VentureLabs


Several emerging technologies are aiming to meet renewable fuel standards, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and provide viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Direct conversion of solar energy into fungible liquid fuel is a particularly attractive option, though conversion of that energy on an industrial scale depends on the efficiency of its capture and conversion. Large-scale programs have been undertaken in the recent past that used solar energy to grow innately oil-producing algae for biomass processing to biodiesel fuel. These efforts were ultimately deemed to be uneconomical because the costs of culturing, harvesting, and processing of algal biomass were not balanced by the process efficiencies for solar photon capture and conversion. This analysis addresses solar capture and conversion efficiencies and introduces a unique systems approach, enabled by advances in strain engineering, photobioreactor design, and a process that contradicts prejudicial opinions about the viability of industrial photosynthesis. We calculate efficiencies for this direct, continuous solar process based on common boundary conditions, empirical measurements and validated assumptions wherein genetically engineered cyanobacteria convert industrially sourced, high-concentration CO2 into secreted, fungible hydrocarbon products in a continuous process. These innovations are projected to operate at areal productivities far exceeding those based on accumulation and refining of plant or algal biomass or on prior assumptions of photosynthetic productivity. This concept, currently enabled for production of ethanol and alkane diesel fuel molecules, and operating at pilot scale, establishes a new paradigm for high productivity manufacturing of nonfossil-derived fuels and chemicals.


Cyanobacteria Metabolic engineering Hydrocarbon Alkane Diesel Renewable fuel Algae Biomass Biodiesel