Exxon Biofuels Research Underway, with Focus on Algae
ExxonMobil scientists recently began running their first experiments to develop biofuels from algae, six months after the world’s largest publicly-traded oil company invested $600 million in the project, an article in the National reported on Wednesday. This investment follows on years of resistance to the pleas of Exxon shareholders to embrace low-carbon energy, but the backing of the oil giant could be the push needed to move biofuels into the mainstream.
ExxonMobil and its partner, Synthetic Genomics, are jumping in (to the brackish or salty water amenable to algae growth) with both feet. Emil Jacobs, the vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil, told the National that “We are at full speed right now. The good news is that we’re no longer writing agreements. We’re doing real work.”
He went on to say, “I think that we need a very aggressive program and to advance this as fast as we can.” Jacobs predicted that commercial-scale “biomanufacturing” of biofuel from could begin in 8 to 10 years.
Such biofuels would be identical at the molecular level to the major components of transportation fuels such as gas, diesel, and jet fuel. Since diesel and heating oil are chemically similar, advances in biodiesel would also be applicable to biofuel heating oil. The fact that biofuels from algae can be molecularly identical to conventional fossil fuels would make the best use of Exxon’s current oil processing facilities and distribution network, as well as the company’s experience operating large oil refineries.
To explain Exxon’s move into biofuels, Jacobs said, “In a large industry like energy and transportation fuel, you need to have all of the advantages that you can get, because you need to fit in with other options.”
Exxon began to look for an appropriate biofuels project early in 2008, about 18 months before it announced its partnership with Synthetic Genomics. Algae-based biofuel was chosen on the basis of four main criteria—scalability, economics, technical feasibility, and environmental footprint.
“Algae takes up land you would not use to grow crops on, and it does not require pure water,” said Jacobs. The unicellular plants can also be grown in more controlled environments, such as Plexiglas incubators, and can be bred quickly to produce customized strains.
The initial experiments will take place at Synthetic Genomics’s labs in California, in a custom-built greenhouse, and at ExxonMobil research facilities in New Jersey and Virginia. Exxon and Synthetic Genomics are also evaluating potential sites for an intermediate-scale pilot plant that would need about of 2 acres of land.
The principal environmental requirements for algae growth are a warm, sunny location with minimal temperature fluctuation. Algae need carbon dioxide, so that algal ponds or bioreactors can be located next to large facilities such as power plants that are equipped with carbon capture technology. The US Gulf Coast and the Arabian Gulf coast are prime locations for algae biofuel projects.
According to Jacobs, “The Middle East would be an option that would certainly be on our short list.”
Exxon is already a joint venture partner of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in the production of crude from the Upper Zakum field, one of the Arabian Gulf’s biggest offshore oil deposits. The partnership improves Abu Dhabi’s chances of co-hosting an algae biofuels project with Exxon down the road.
As Jacobs predicted, “If we are successful, in 8 years we will know whether we’re on the path to commercialization.”
Jacobs spoke with The National at the third World Future Energy Summit, currently taking place in Abu Dhabi. The WFES is an annual networking event in Abu Dhabi for thought leaders from around the world in the renewable energy industry.