Translating Synthetic Biology Research into Oil Sands Solutions
OSLI is looking at ways of translating its highly successful experience with student-run synthetic biology research into commercial solutions that address oil sands issues.
"We've gained some great insight into synthetic biology and have reached a point where we need to determine if it has commercial future in the oil sands," says Jill Lang, of ConocoPhillips, who leads OSLI's synthetic biology effort.
A synthetic biology Subject Matter Expert (SME) will be contracted by OSLI's Technology Breakthrough Working Group to evaluate potential paths forward. This work builds on OSLI's experience sponsoring teams from around the world in the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, the world's premier undergraduate synthetic biology competition.
Sponsoring eight teams in 2011 and five in 2010, provided OSLI with economical small-scale research findings into synthetic biology's potential to address oil sands issues in three categories:
improving bitumen recovery;
producing fuels; and
"iGEM provided OSLI with a cost-effective overview of various applications of synthetic biology in the oil sands and the success of our teams has provided such positive small-scale results that we are now looking to investigate further," says Lang.
The oil sands issues most likely to be addressed by synthetic biology were highlighted by the highly successful work completed by OSLI-sponsored iGEM teams, one that placed first overall and another that took top honors in the environment category.
The OSLI-sponsored University of Washington team became the iGEM 2011 World Champion for creating a biofuel made of glucose with a composition identical to that of diesel. The University of Calgary team won first place in the Environment Category for its work in building a biosensor to detect naphthenic acid. This biosensor could potentially be used to test for naphthenic acid on a reclamation site during fieldwork, without having to send soil to a laboratory.
Lang outlined three possible pathways forward that will be evaluated by the SME. These include:
an internal approach where OSLI develops its own resources focused
solely on oil sands issues;
an external approach where OSLI influences existing funding and
intellectual resources to focus more on oil sands applications;
a combination of internal and external approaches in which OSLI builds some internal capacity that is used to engage existing institutions.
"Since synthetic biology is such a new area, especially in the oil sands, we need greater expertise from a SME to help OSLI determine the most effective and cost efficient way to move forward."
Synthetic biology is a combination of biological research and technology that involves designing and constructing new biological parts, devices and systems or redesigning existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. The oil sands industry is looking for breakthrough processes that will reduce energy consumption and associated GHG emissions while improving the mobilization of oil.