Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ExxonMobil to make fuel from algae

ExxonMobil and biotech firm Synthetic Genomics (SGI) have announced a new alliance to produce alternative fuel made from photosynthetic algae. ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million on the project--$300 million internally and another $300 million to SGI if key R&D milestones are met.

Under the partnership, SGI will research and develop systems to grow large amounts of algae and convert them into biofuels. ExxonMobil will provide engineering and scientific talent throughout different phases of the project, from increasing the level of algae production to manufacturing the final product.

"Meeting the world's growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources," said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. "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."

In an economic climate that has made life tougher for alternative-energy companies, ExxonMobil is wading into biofuel waters that recently swallowed a once promising algae-minded start-up, GreenFuel Technologies, which said in May that it had run out of funds and would be shutting down. Still, other smaller companies such as PetroAlgae and Aurora Biofuels remain hopeful about commercial production of algae biofuel.

Algae is one of a number of potential alternative fuel sources, though many of the others, like ethanol, are derived from plants also used for food. Algae also can thrive in a variety of conditions.

Based in California, Synthetic Genomics is a privately held company that develops energy solutions based on genomics research.

SGI says it's spent several years working on a way to harvest the oil produced by photosynthetic algae. Past methods have proven costly and time consuming, but SGI says its process for collecting the oil has so far proven more efficient and cost-effective, though work remains to be done.

"The real challenge to creating a viable next generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes which will require significant advances in both science and engineering," J. Craig Venter, CEO of SGI, said in a statement. "The alliance between SGI and ExxonMobil will bring together the complementary capabilities and expertise of both companies to develop innovative solutions that could lead to the large scale production of biofuel from algae."

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