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ExxonMobil’s Tentative Algae Biofuel Adventure

Exxon co-funds algae biofuel research projectNot that ExxonMobil is going all soft on us, but the company once notorious for promoting bad information about the state of climate science has been quietly researching algae biofuel in partnership with California-based Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) for the past four years, and it just announced a new co-funding agreement last week. This new phase of the partnership is significant because it enables SGI to focus on foundational research to develop enhanced strains of algae, rather than seeking a quickie commercial solution. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad omen remains to be seen.

The ExxonMobil Algae Biofuel Venture

Our sister site reported on the ExxonMobil algae biofuel project back in 2009, when the company invested a tidy $600 million in SGI, which by the way was co-founded by human genome mapper J. Craig Venter.

More specifically, the deal involved an ExxonMobil offshoot called ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. Half of the investment was to be dedicated to algae biofuel research and the other half to other SGI projects.

Fast-forward to last spring, and our friends over at Biofuels Digest were reporting that a “Cone of Silence” had descended over the venture, with rumors that the two companies were going separate ways.

ExxonMobil Steps Down Off The Algae Biofuel Ledge?

That leads us up to last week, when the new agreement was announced. The optimist in us wants to believe that ExxonMobil is still committed to algae biofuel research, but our inner pessimist notes that in SGI’s press release, Venter seemed to go out of his way to acknowledge that the agreement calls for SGI to keep its hands off the commercial aspect of the research:

“We look forward to working with ExxonMobil to undertake this in-depth focus on the basic science research to better understand and enhance algae. The new agreement gives us an opportunity to really focus on improving algal strains using our core synthetic biology technologies to develop biofuels.”

That by no means leaves SGI out of the algae market game. It has a scaled-up development and production facility in Imperial Valley that features both photobioreactors and open ponds, as well as a greenhouse/lab at its La Jolla campus.

However, the severing of the commercial from the foundational research partnership does indicate that ExxonMobil is not quite as interested in bringing algae biofuel to market any time soon, as it was back in 2009.

ExxonMobil Hearts Natural Gas

Adding fuel to our pessimist’s fire is the fact that earlier this year, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company entered into a licensing agreement with a company called G2X Energy, Inc., for the development of a “world scale natural gas to gasoline project.”

As the country’s largest producer of natural gas, that venture puts ExxonMobil in a pretty envious position. Though domestic natural gas prices have been low for several years partly due to the fracking explosion, things are beginning to tighten up.

Prices are set to skyrocket as the Obama Administration just green-lighted a $10 billion liquified natural gas export facility in Texas last week. Other distribution hubs, for example in New York State’s Finger Lakes region, are also beginning to feel the pressure as the industry ramps up for increased natural gas exports.

ExxonMobil is also going all-out to “prove” that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, which would strengthen its position in the U.S. power generation market (to be clear, though, studies are beginning to show that fugitive methane emissions and other impacts could undermine that claim).

In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising that ExxonMobil would ratchet down its commitment to algae biofuel.

For now, at least, it looks like our inner optimist is going to take a break and maybe go have a Walking Dead marathon or something until we see how ExxonMobil’s new agreement with SGI pans out.


ExxonMobil’s Excellent Algae Biofuel Adventure…Or Not was originally published on: CleanTechnica. To read more from CleanTechnica, join over 30,000 others and subscribe to our free RSS feed, follow us on Facebook (also free!), follow us on Twitter, or just visit our homepage (yep, free).

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I K's picture
I K on May 21, 2013

What is currently stopping vegetable oil (very similar to diesel and some cars can run straight off it) being produced on a large scale and being sold in fuel stations just like regular diesel.

The wholesale price must currently be close to crude oil prices considering the retail price is not far off.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 22, 2013

IK, the obvious barrier to vegetable oil based biodiesel is production cost.  Vegetable oil could be very economically processed into diesel by blending it into petroleum distillate and charging the blended feedstock into existing petroleum refineries diesel production units.  Past Federal renewable fuel standard regulations, however, required that the vegetable oil be processed in ‘neat’ form, which requires building new bio-refinery production facilities; at substantial costs.  These costs have apparently been too high to encourage-support large expansion of new bio-refineries (despite generous Government subsidies), which would potentially make much more vegetable oil based biodiesel available for retail markets.

Today, most U.S. biodiesel is produced from soybean oil.  Vegetable oil most often is used in food/feed markets.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 22, 2013

Exxon, like most major oil companies, routinely invests in a broad range of fuels based projects, including biofuels.  The obvious challenge is return-on-investment for their shareholders.  Algae based biofuels fuels have made significant progress in recent years, but appear to be still challenged by ‘net energy values’, and of course, production costs vs. alternatives.  In Exxon’s case, their focus on ‘gas-to-liquids’ (GTL) is obviously due to their natural gas hydraulic fracturing successes.  As you are probably aware, for them to continue to support algae fuels research requires that the appropriate executive be persuaded that past research has shown reasonably attractive (potentially rewarding) results.

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