Ok, $600 million for Exxon is pocket change, but for most companies it’s a big investment, particularly when you’re discussing algae biofuels. Exxon announced today they’ll put in $600 million over five years in a partnership with privately held Synthetic Genomics to develop transportation fuels from algae. As an interesting side note, Synthetic Genomics was founded in part by Craig Venter who was instrumental in mapping the human genome and has been listed by Time as one of the most influential people in the world in 2007 and 2008.
Exxon believes that photosynthetic algae may be a viable, long term biofuel solution that can be mass produced, but it will take billions and several years before you’d ever see it at the pumps. According to an Exxon engineer, there are big challenges such as identifying the algae strains that can produce oil quickly at lows costs, determining the best way to grow it and being able to mass produce large quantities. However, the reward could potentially be great. Algae can be grown on land and water areas that may be unsuitable for other crops while being a consumer of greenhouse gases. Another advantage is that the oils produced have molecular structures similar to petroleum products, so Exxon has the infrastructure already in place to convert the oils into fuel and get it to customers.
“This is not going to be easy, and there are no guarantees of success,” said Exxon VP Emil Jacobs. “But we’re combining Exxon Mobil’s technical and financial strength with a leader in bioscientific genomics.”