InterviewExxonMobil $600m algae stake may reap green crude oil

14 July 2009 22:17  [Source: ICIS news]

By Ben Lefebvre

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--ExxonMobil’s $600m (€432m) commitment to producing synthetic crude oil from algae could eventually lead to oil companies growing their own oil, industry consultant and biofuels expert Will Thurmond said on Tuesday.

Thurmond, president and founder of the Emerging Markets Online research site and author of Algae 2020, said the size of Exxon’s commitment with biotech company Synthetic Genomics (SGI) and the process being developed could bring algae-based biofuel into the mainstream.

“Algae give them a source of crude oil they can put directly into their refineries,” Thurmond told ICIS news. “This is a big deal.”

In its partnership with SGI, Exxon is following in the footsteps of other oil companies investing in so-called green crude. Chevron partnered with algae-fuel startup Solazyme in California 2008, while former executives from BP started Sapphire Energy, another California-based biofuels company working with algae.

But the size of Exxon’s investment - $300m for SGI and another $300m for internal research - gives it a lot of skin in the game.

With SGI, Exxon gains access to a process that has the potential to be much cheaper than current algae-based fuel technologies.

In the SGI process, one batch of genetically modified algae continuously excretes the synthetic crude, which is then skimmed off from a tank of water, Thurmond said.

That compares with the more widespread processes of growing algae in batches, with the producer killing the algae to harvest a substance that can be turned into synthetic crude oil.

“In the traditional method, you grow it, harvest it, kill it,” Thurmond said. “SGI found a leapfrog process, a new way to produce fuel from algae at a lower cost.”

Renewable fuel advocates have considered algae the most promising among renewable feedstocks.

Algae subsists on water, sunlight and carbon dioxide, allowing producers to grow it nearly anywhere. It also falls outside the food-versus-fuel debate that plagues such other biofuel feedstocks as corn and soybeans.

Exxon said it will take up to 10 years to obtain government approval for its genetically modified algae and reduce production costs enough to make its green crude commercially viable.

Thurmond, for his part, says the company could see results sooner than that.

“They’re being conservative, but this stuff takes time,” he said.

($1 = €0.72)

Bookmark Simon Robinson’s Big Biofuels Blog for some independent thinking on biofuels
For more information on biodiesel, visit ICIS chemical intelligence

By: Ben Lefebvre
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