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Biofuels Exxon co-funds algae biofuel research project

Published on May 20th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


ExxonMobil’s Excellent Algae Biofuel Adventure… Or Not

May 20th, 2013 by  

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 Gas2.org 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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • vetxcl

    Thanks for detailing how THAT source of biofuel just DRIED up. No, no … you didn’t say that. I understand legal constraints.

  • vetxcl

    Gee, it’s NOT like there is ANY history of a market dominator buying up the rights to market newer tech and then NOT marketing it. Oh wait, there IS.

  • Mohan Raj

    Exxon will never sell a bio-fuel that competes with their own Product (OIL). In fact, they opposed the natgas as a transportation fuel until their oil production went down drastically.

  • James Wimberley

    How much really is there in the distinction at the heart of this post: “foundational research to develop enhanced strains of algae, rather than seeking a quickie commercial solution”? If you have the right algae, the rest is boring off-the-shelf biochemical engineering. The “right algae” includes how they interact in a range of photoreactor designs, so SGI can’t just focus on nice-looking genes.

    • agelbert

      It’s possible that Exxon, true to corporate skullduggery form, wants to be the first to patent certain algae products that product superior oils, fuels or lubricants than are possible to obtain from crude refining and then SIT ON THEM. I think Sapphire Energy or Heliae is going to beat them to it. One or both of these algae to fuels and food corporations are ramping up to compete with fossil fuels as we speak.


      Heliea patents:


      Big oil ALWAYS fights dirty.

      • The future of algae biofuels is promising, but perhaps a decade or more down the road. This seems to be a more pragmatic approach to commercialization. Early hype in this area was incredible, such as testing Navy fighter planes with biodiesel at $400 a barrel. Our favorite was the Synthetic Genomics Hypemobile, in 2009, to promote a movie. Most of the efficiency was gained from plugging in the hybrid electric car to recharge, rather than using gasoline and biodiesel (1.25 gallons for the cross-country trek!). We blogged about it then. Glad to see the hype easing. http://goo.gl/9LII9

        • Ronald Brak

          $400 a barrel is about 40% more than gasoline in Australia and almost the same price as gasoline in Norway.

          • U.S. prices are currently around $100 a barrel.

          • Ronald Brak

            That would be for oil. Forty-four gallons of gasoline for a road vehicle would cost roughly $160 in the US at the moment. But my point is just that $400 a barrel doesn’t seem so bad to people in a lot of countries. At least not for something that’s still in the kit bashing stage.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Exxon Mobil published this in 2011…

        Environmental performance (including GHG emissions) is assessed and recognized through the annual planning and budget process. During this process, key strategies and objectives are established for each business line for both the short and long term. During the initial planning meeting and then each quarter, results are stewarded against prior commitments.

        Society currently faces, and will continue to face, two major, global energy-related challenges. The first is to maintain and expand energy supplies to meet growing global demand. The second challenge is to address the societal and environmental risks posed by rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

        Managing GHG emissions and energy challenges requires action by individuals, companies, and governments. This will require an integrated set of solutions, and for ExxonMobil, this includes increasing efficiency; advancing lower-carbon energy technologies; and supporting effective, national and international policies. Our efforts aim not only to reduce emissions from our operations, but also to reduce emissions by end users of energy.

        At ExxonMobil, our strategy to reduce GHG emissions is focused on increasing our own energy efficiency in the short term; implementing current proven emission reducing technologies in the near and medium term; and developing breakthrough, game-changing technologies for the long term.

        While climate change remains extraordinarily complex, increasing scientific evidence makes it clear that rising GHG emissions pose risks to society and ecosystems. These risks justify the development and implementation of responsible actions by governments, companies, and individuals.

        ExxonMobil believes that the long-term objective of a climate change policy should be to reduce the risk of serious impacts on society and ecosystems, while considering the importance of energy to global economic development.


        It could be that Exxon is doing what they said they were going to do….

        • agelbert

          It could be. However, it could be a legalese boiler plate fig leaf put out there while they do the opposite.
          The only thing “complicated” about the environmental problems of GHG to Exxon is the fact that they threaten big oil’s bottom line all the way to potential bankruptcy. Their track record is crystal clear. Read “The Tyranny of Oil” by Antonia Juhaz.


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