US oil giant ExxonMobil is investing millions in developing biofuels from photosynthetic algae

Oil giant ExxonMobil has finally entered the biofuel race and signed up biotechnology company Synthetic Genomics (SGI) to help produce next generation biofuels from photosynthetic algae. The $600 million (?364 million) partnership with the biotech firm started by J. Craig Venter, best known for his pioneering human genome research, may look like a U-turn for a company that for many years refused to even acknowledge the existence of global warming. 

But Exxon has seen the potential benefits of investing in a technology that can produce up to ten times the amount of fuel per hectare than conventional crop-based biofuels and has said it is willing to invest ’billions’ if the technology proves to be successful. 

Photosynthetic algae are able to very efficiently convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into cellular oils (known as lipids) and hydrocarbons that can be processed into fuels and chemicals. Another key advantage is that they don’t need to be grown on land suitable for farming - avoiding the criticism levelled at many biofuel sources that take up valuable land needed to grow food for the world’s ever increasing population. However, the cost of extracting and processing the oil from the algae has meant it is more economical to continue using fossil fuels.

Venter believes that there is a better way than simply harvesting the algae like a crop and extracting the oil, and instead is working towards developing a continuous biofuel production system.

Venter’s team at SGI has successfully engineered algae to secrete hydrocarbons that are similar to the intermediates produced during the refining of fossil fuel oil. With the help and investment from Exxon, his team are now working towards developing a continuous production process that could produce large quantities of transportation fuel in the next five to ten years.

’We are confident that the combination of our respective expertise in science, research, engineering and scale-up should unlock the power of algae as biological energy producers in methods and scale not previously explored,’ says Venter.

Exxon is not the only oil major to be lured in by the promise of algae, Shell has been collaborating with HR Biopetroleum since December 2007 and has built a facility to grow algae off the coast of Hawaii. Emil Jacobs, vice president of R&D at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, has defended the oil giants somewhat late entry into the biofuels arena, saying: ’This investment comes after several years of planning and study and is an important addition to ExxonMobil’s ongoing efforts to advance breakthrough technologies to help meet the world’s energy challenges.’

’Meeting the world’s growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources. We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future if our efforts result in an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel,’ he says.

Matt Wilkinson

Enjoy this story? Spread the word using the ’tools’ menu on the left.