When we refer to biofuels, we are talking about taking algae or plants that are growing today and chemically or biologically turning them into things you can put in your gas tank. The biofuels used around the world today are largely derived from sugary crops like sugar cane and corn to make ethanol, or from vegetable oils like soy to make biodiesel.
We think our work with algae offers some of the greatest promise for next-generation biofuels, which is why ExxonMobil has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to algae research. Algae represents a big improvement over the current sources for several reasons:
- Unlike making ethanol and biodiesel, producing algae doesn’t compete with sources of food, rendering the food-vs.-fuel quandary a moot point.
- Since algae can be produced in brackish water, including seawater, its production won’t strain freshwater resources the way ethanol does.
- Algae consume CO2, and on a life-cycle basis have a much lower emissions profile than corn ethanol given the energy used to make fertilizer, distill the ethanol, and to farm and transport the latter.
- Algae can yield more biofuel per acre than plant-based biofuels – currently 1,500 gallons of fuel per acre, per year. That’s almost five times more fuel per acre than from sugar cane or corn.
Algae effectively take energy from sunlight and they grow with carbon taken from CO2. If developed the right way, algae can produce lipids – a.k.a fats – that are very close in characteristic to the crude oil currently processed in refineries. You might say our job is to act a bit like Richard Simmons and get the algae to “sweat” the oil out, and to do so at a large enough scale to make a difference.
If we are able to do this, we will be capable of producing a raw material that can be processed in the existing refining and distribution system – and with fewer emissions all along the chain. Ethanol, by contrast, corrodes and degrades the pipes and other infrastructure currently in use, which adds great cost and complexity to the biofuels equation.
If you think about it, the oil and natural gas we get out of the ground today are actually just really old algae, pressurized over millions of years. What we want to do is apply our scientific know-how to speeding-up that process.
There are quite a few challenges, of course. We have to figure a way to get the algae to grow at the rate we want, which requires a fundamental understanding of photosynthesis. That means figuring out the right temperature, the right amount of sunlight, and a host of other variables. And then we have to figure out how to scale this up from the laboratory to the marketplace.
We’re working with a number of top partners on this challenge. One is Synthetic Genomics, led by a team of scientists that helped map the human genome. Since algae are difficult to modify genetically, we hope to leverage their expertise to solve the puzzle.
Collaboration with researchers at the Colorado School of Mines and Michigan State University, meanwhile, aims at perfecting photosynthesis in order to make algae grow better. And we are partnering with Iowa State and Northwestern to investigate biofuels possibilities from non-algae, non-food sources (like agricultural waste) as well.
Our challenge at ExxonMobil is to help meet the world’s growing demand for energy, while doing so in ways that reduce emissions and protect the environment. An integrated set of solutions will be required to increase efficiency, expand supplies, and mitigate emissions. Finding those solutions is difficult work. But it’s also exciting work, rewarding work. All of us at ExxonMobil are proud to be part of it.