Over the summer, Exxon Mobil announced plans to invest $600 million in research and development of algae based biofuels, partially through a partnership with Synthetic Genomics. This past week, Exxon announced that the research had already begun and it was progressing at ‘full speed’.
Just six months after ExxonMobil agreed to invest US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) in a six-year project to develop biofuel from microscopic plants, teams of researchers are performing their first experiments.
The project represents a radical departure for the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, which until last year had resisted calls from shareholders to embrace low-carbon energy.
But now the assembled biologists and chemists at ExxonMobil and its partner, Synthetic Genomics, are off to a raring start.
“We’re at full speed right now,” Dr Emil Jacobs, the vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil, said this week while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. “The good news is we’re no longer writing agreements. We’re doing real work.
“I think we need a very aggressive programme and to advance this as fast as we can,” he said.
This is great news because it sends a positive signal to the algae biofuel industry that at least one major energy provider is willing to front major dollars towards research.
However, there is one thing that I found amusing in the article which dealt with where Exxon was looking to place the production fields. One region was the Gulf Coast area but the other wasn’t exactly home turf.
The principal environmental requirements are a warm, sunny location where the temperature fluctuates minimally. A source of carbon dioxide to enrich the algal growth medium is also needed, providing the option to site algal ponds or bio-reactors next to power plants or other large industrial installations equipped with carbon-capture technology. The US Gulf Coast is a prime candidate for algal biofuel projects. Locations along the Arabian Gulf coast are also appealing.
“The Middle East would be an option that would certainly be on our shortlist,” Dr Jacobs said.
Yep, they are also looking to place production in the Middle East. Given, the climate would be suitable but one of the great things about algae is that it could offer the United States the option to produce a lot of our fuel within our own borders, helping to increase our energy security.
How ironic would it be if we ended our reliance on petroleum from the Middle East only to start importing algae biofuel produced in the very same region? The energy security issues would theoretically be the same with instability in the region potentially sending prices soaring. Just change OPEC to OAEC and we could have the very same problems in the future as we have today.
The good news is that Exxon first has to research and develop a successful way to commercially produce algae biofuels before we will have to worry where our algae biofuel originates. By the time that happens, this issue could be moot.