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Is This Exxon’s Secret Weapon Against Electric Cars?

Electric Car

Every now and then, an oil supermajor comes up with what they tout as a breakthrough in scientific research of renewable energy sources.

This month, it was ExxonMobil’s turn to report a breakthrough in advanced biofuels. Exxon said that it had found a way to make algae ‘fatter’, and those algae could become part of the (distant) future energy mix, could cut carbon dioxide emissions, and would not compete with food crops like other biofuel sources.

Exxon and Synthetic Genomics have been partners since 2009 in researching and developing oil from algae to be used as a renewable, lower-emission alternative to traditional transportation fuels.

By using advanced cell engineering technologies at Synthetic Genomics, the joint research team has just modified an algae strain to enhance the algae’s oil content from 20 percent to more than 40 percent, Exxon said.

But the U.S. oil supermajor was quick to note that, referring to the fatter-algae strain, “technology is still many years from potentially reaching the commercial market.”

If at some point in the future Exxon was able to produce commercial-scale biofuel from algae at competitive prices, it could potentially offer an alternative to electric vehicles, creating a renewable-source fuel and freeing the U.S. from the geopolitical issues like crude oil imports or lithium reserves in countries outside America, David Butler at Seeking Alpha argues.

That is, if cars in America still run on gas when Exxon hits the market with a biofuel from a source that is grown and made fatter in labs.

Back in 2013, Exxon said—after having spent US$600 million on developing biofuels for motor vehicles from algae—that success was still a quarter of a century away.

“We’ve come to understand some limits of that technology, or limits as we understand it today, which doesn’t mean it’s limited forever,” the then CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, said. Related: China Banks On Natural Gas As Oil Production Tanks

Now a breakthrough in research has been achieved, but still, limits exist in taking the fatter algae out of the lab and into the car engines.

Oliver Fetzer, chief executive officer of Synthetic Genomics, said:

“One of the chief obstacles facing the adoption of algae as a scalable energy source has been the biofuels industry’s difficulty in producing sufficient volumes. It’s not enough to be able to produce amounts equivalent to a lake’s-worth of oil from algae when global oil consumption is a veritable ocean – 96 million barrels – every day, according to the International Energy Agency.”

According to Exxon, apart from transportation-related energy, the algae could also “potentially be processed in conventional refineries, producing fuels no different from convenient, energy-dense diesel. Oil produced from algae also holds promise as a potential feedstock for chemical manufacturing.”

Exxon is not the only oil supermajor that has been conducting biofuel research. Ten years ago, in 2007—three years before the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, UK’s BP selected UC Berkeley to lead a US$500 million energy research consortium in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The funding created the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), to which BP had pledged to contribute US$350 million. But at the beginning of 2015, BP exercised its contract option to pull nearly a third of its funding for 2015, pulling even more in the remaining two years, according to the Cal Alumni association at UC Berkeley.

In November last year, BP said that it was investing US$30 million in bio jet fuel producer Fulcrum. Related: Will Central Banks Derail The Shale Boom?

The UK supermajor has been producing ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil since 2008, and has three ethanol production plants there. But sugarcane crop growing and harvesting impacts the environment and needs arable land, unlike Exxon’s fat-lab-algae.

Exxon’s research may be promising and hailed as a ‘breakthrough’ by the company, but in its own words, actual feasible deliverable commercial production is many years away.

Until then, the ‘transportation’ using algae could only be this surfboard made of algae processed into a different kind—and sustainable—“polyols” that replace the conventional petrochemicals used in making surfboards.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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  • Bruce Armstrong on July 02 2017 said:
    You should get a calculator out and scale it up to the panacea solution described.

    I have been to a number of biofuels lectures and the result is always the same.

    The agae performance was impressive, but to use this on even a single sectoion, such as air transport requires someting like 60,000 square km for fuel the world's fleet.

    Road transport is an even bigger fuel user, so it is easy to see that the future doesn't align with biofuels.

    The scaling makes is a safe statement that liquid biofueld will be a niche incustry, only capable of suppling a few specialised uses.
  • Josh Gregner on July 02 2017 said:
    As usual in journalism - if the headline is a question, the answer is NO.

    I can't wait to ditch fuels for a car. Not because of CO2 or whatever. But because I don't want to be dependent on a huge company that I need to visit weekly to fuel up. As soon as I can charge my car at home over night and it has the range to cater for my driving, it is over for Exxon - oil or bio fuel, I don't care!
  • Adrian on July 03 2017 said:
    For cars? Applying Bettridge's law of headlines, "The correct answer to any headline question which can reasonably answered with 'No' is 'No'", then... No.

    This could be a zero-net-carbon solution for ships and air transport, however...
  • Marc J Rauch on October 10 2017 said:
    Tsvetana -

    Exxon has been playing with algae in San Diego (LaJolla) for several years. And yes, as you write in your article, they've put half a billion dollars into the Synthetic Genomics project. But, for Exxon, a half billion dollars is not a lot of money. Supposedly they've been trying to create a super strain. Algae doesn't need a "super" strain, it is a naturally occurring abundant "resource."

    In fact, the creation of a super strain may be bad because it might be susceptible to any one of many external conditions that could kill the entire "crop," requiring the process to start over. The normal algae creation process, because it has been around for billions of years, has been able to adapt to external conditions and stimuli, and recover very quickly - think of cockroaches ability to adjust to poisons.

    Exxon is hoping for two things: First, to use their experiments as a diversion to pretend that they are doing something to address the problems of petroleum oil. This is what the American oil industry did a few decades ago when they created the Natural Gas Vehicles for America organization. It was just a way to divert Congressional attention away from the oil industry - to make Congress think they were trying to help solve the problems.

    Second, Exxon hopes to create an algae 'formula' that they can patent and build a monopoly around, if and when fuels made from algae becomes economical or necessary. Then they would undoubtedly use their financial muscle to buy enough Congressional support to mandate the use of Exxon's super strain. This is what John Rockefeller and the petroleum industry did to get rid of ethanol as a competitor.

    However, what I think is so interesting about your hypothesis (that algae is Exxon's secret weapon against electric cars), is that we at The Auto Channel believe that the oil industry is using electric cars as a diversion because they know that electric cars will not replace internal combustion cars for many, many decades - if ever. This follows the same tactic they used so successfully with natural gas.

    The timely solution to energy dependence, and the timely solution to the health and environmental problems caused by petroleum oil fuels is domestically produced ethanol.


    Marc J. Rauch
    Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

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