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Bloomin' green energy key to Exxon's 'scum back'

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Shanta Barley | 12:07 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Most oil companies are backing away from renewable energy but ExxonMobil has just announced plans to invest $600 million in developing a 'green' fuel from the scum of the Earth: algae.


Algae are life's arch ascetics. Tiny plants, they have tiny demands (just a whiff of waste CO2, a dash of dirty water and a sprinkling of sunlight, if you please) yet manufacture huge quantities of oil.

Within five years, Exxon and its new partner in grime, Synthetic Genomics, hope to have engineered a strain of algae that secretes an 'economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel', according to its vice president of research and development, Emil Jacobs.

'Algaculture', as it's referred to by some, makes a lot of sense if reducing greenhouse gas emissions is your priority. Not only do algae eat three times their own weight in CO2, but Exxon intends to 'fatten' them on waste greenhouse gas that would otherwise have been pumped into the atmosphere by nearby factories.

Can't the algal farms suck carbon dioxide straight out of the atmosphere, erasing fossil fuels from the equation altogether? 'Sadly not', says Dr Jacobs. 'It's not economically viable right now to extract CO2 from the air.'

What's more, algae are ferociously productive: up to 40 times more productive than soy, according to Exxon's calculations. That doesn't mean algal farms won't take up a lot of land if they become a hit, of course. 'It's too early to predict how much land it would require to produce algae fuel on a large scale', notes Dr Jacobs. 'But it won't be a trivial amount of space'.

Follow up: BP brings 'green era' to a close


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