Could Exxon Go Green? Oil Giant Invests in Algae Biofuel Research

By Eliza Strickland | July 17, 2009 9:10 am

algaeEarlier this week, the oil giant ExxonMobil announced a significant shift in direction: Rather than drilling ever downward in an attempt to find more oil, the company will invest heavily in green, growing things that can manufacture biofuel. Exxon plans to put $600 million into the production of algae-based biofuels, and will partner with the genetics company Synthetic Genomics run by genomics pioneer Craig Venter. The announcement came just a week after another industrial giant, Dow Chemical, declared its own investment in algae technology.

The biofuel industry is currently facing a shift from first-generation biofuels to so-called advanced biofuels as evidence mounts that corn-based ethanol and soybean biodiesel are not as ecologically, socially or economically sustainable as many first thought…. Algae have been touted as a better organic material for producing biofuel by many researchers and entrepreneurs. It does not take up any arable land and can be grown in controlled conditions; at a basic level algae only needs water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and some nutrients to grow [CNN].

Exxon and Synthetic Genomics expect to spend the next five or six years addressing three challenges: Finding the most suitable strain of algae; figuring out the best way to grow it; and figuring out how to mass produce it economically within the existing energy infrastructure [The Wall Street Journal]. The biotech company will use genetic engineering to tweak existing algae strains and turn them into more efficient oil factories by, for example, causing them to produce a pure hydrocarbon that can easily be processed.

The two companies hope to avoid the problems other algae startups have experienced in trying to harvest huge amounts of algae quickly and economically by avoiding the harvest altogether. Many algae make oil, which they store as a foodstuff against an uncertain future. But they do not squirt it out of their bodies. That would be pointless. Other firms are working on ways to break up the cells of oil-rich algae to get at the oil. Dr Venter, however, has succeeded in engineering a secretion pathway from another organism into experimental algae. These algae now release their oil, which floats to the surface of the culture vessel. That is why he refers to the process as biomanufacturing. It is not farming, he reckons, because the algae themselves are never harvested [The Economist]. 

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Image: flickr / Lee Nachtigal

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • algaepreneur

    Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes CO2. To learn more about the fast-track algae industry, you may want to check out this website: http://www.nationalalgaeassociation. They are the first algae trade association in the U.S.

  • Jumblepudding

    So basically, Exxonmobil wins by having algae suck up the excess CO2 created by its product and reform it into more product? My father should have stayed in the oil business.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Two problems: 1: powering things with explosions in inefficient – no amount of algae or biofuel will help that.

    2: Great, algae that produce an oil slick on top of whatever water they happen to be living in. Am I the only one that sees the inevitable outcome of these getting loosed into the wild, eventually turning our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans into self-perpetuating oil-spills the likes of which Exxon couldn’t possibly imagine. The Valdez will look like an extra-large from the mini-mart you accidentally kicked over under your chair (fun fact: I use that as a metaphor because I always joked that my friend was getting the supertanker size. We called it the Valdez. Then one day he did kick it over under his lawn chair. extra bonus: It was Mt. Dew, which is filled with brominated vegetable oil – it’s what give it that color – well actually prevents the color separating from the water – and that awesome slimy after-feeling.)

    Also, algaepreneur references a website that doesn’t appear to actually exist.

  • Hummm.

    Serously Nick, they don’t produce that much oil. And I actually thought that you were going to point out that covering the water surface of the algae tanks with their own oil will cut down on the sunlight reaching them. And that would lower the photosynthesis efficiency and decrease the amount of oil each little algae could produce. I was then going to respond that the oil is transparent and surface currents can constantly channel the surface slick into a holding area…
    Whatever.

  • Angela

    @Nick: algaepreneur simply forgot the .com… so try http://www.nationalalgaeassociation.com/ instead.

  • nick

    how about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane_clathrate
    its allready there dont have to drill or any thing or maybe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_arc_waste_disposal
    tons of trash allover is stead of paying people to take your trash it might be free or they might pay you for it ? being sort of optimistic.

  • amphiox

    Nick, so long as the type of oil manufactured by the algae is biodegradable, (and given that the algae make this oil as a food/energy store, the algae themselves already have the pathway that biodegrades their own oil), this shouldn’t be that big of a potential problem.

    Also, I would draw your attention to algal blooms. 100% natural phenomenon, though some are indeed exacerbated by human pollution and other activities. Vast areas of the seas get coated with algal products, hundreds of times bigger than any oil spill, resulting in a terrible local environmental disaster. But it happens all over the world, naturally, every year, and the ecosystems recover, and indeed, even exploit the algae.

  • K Miller

    This is such obvious greenwash. Exxon posted record profits in 2008, spending over $477 Billion dollars. While $600 Million is step in the right direction, there is a long way to go before we have a green method of energy production in the US.

  • amphiox

    I see this as strategic investment by Exxon. Like any corporation their primary concern is the bottom line. They’re foreseeing the possibility that at some point in the future their fossil fuel gravy train is going to wreck, or at least run to risk of wrecking, so they invest a little in this alternative just in case. But the amount is small enough that even if it fails completely, which is also a possibility, they really haven’t lost anything.

  • http://p-manandhar.info Prakash Mannadhar

    On the question of whether it is farming or manufacturing? Why bother, name it anything… Good luck to the researchers….

  • zachary

    I see this as entire vein of research as a very interesting and potentially revolutionary field. However, I don’t believe the big energy companies are getting into it as anything other than a red herring. This will not be powering our future, the moment you see exxon mobile invest heavily in say, nuclear energy, then you know a change is coming.

  • http://www.stefancarter.com Sridharaya

    cool read

  • heyZeus

    At least they are smart enough NOT to invest in nuclear. They obviouusly know its only economic if you are really after the weapons and pile hidden subsidies on everywhere so to pretend its for electricity. And don’t mention the thousands of years of ongoing costs handling the waste and plants that are too radioactive to enter after a few decades of operation.
    Methane Clathrates? are you crazy? Do you want the planet to go Venus, and us only be able to survive in the open at the sth pole in winter?

    Go Algae! 500x500miles for all US fuel requirements. Desert, ocean, whatever. Start with ya sewage ponds. Poo-Pond-Scum-Fuel would make a good dent in ya noxious vapours US. Been done for years in some countries.

  • Sammi

    Big Oil claims that as soon as the little guys come up with the algae solution, they will just buy everyone out. What Big Oil doesn’t realize is that counties and states are already working on becoming self-sustainable (and they’re doing it quietly and below the radar, and that they don’t want to be held hostage to Big Oil and its shareholder returns any longer.

    Investment in algae by Big Oil, so far, is a complete joke. Exxon got all sorts of kudos for announcing a $600 million over several years ‘deal’ (amount is below materiality threshold for disclosure purposes) with Synthetic Genomics (private – no disclosure), but was able to keep news about the $100 million going to Nigeria to drill a new well fairly quiet.

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    I used to be recommended this blog by my cousin. I am not certain whether or not this post is written by him as nobody else recognize such detailed about my problem. You’re wonderful! Thank you!

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