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ExxonMobil’s Excellent Algae Biofuel Adventure… Or Not

Not 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.

Exxon co-funds algae biofuel research project

Algae biofuel (cropped) by Jurvetson.

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.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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