green and sustainable business

Dow and Exxon boost algae biofuel

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algae-2When Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil get into the algae biofuel game it’s a sure sign that algae as a reasonable go-to alternative and renewable energy source has entered the big leagues.

Or is it? Is it more than the typical and familiar corporate lip service using green lipstick? For that answer, stay tuned.  It might take awhile.

Dow, Exxon and more recently the Department of Energy are giving algae biofuel major street cred while gaining huge PR benefits in the mainstream press and (ahem) the blogosphere.

Earlier this month Dow announced a hook-up with Algenol Biofuels Inc. to construct and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery that will convert CO2 into ethanol. The planned location covers 24 acres at a Dow site in Freeport, Texas. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Algenol has developed a third generation biofuel that makes ethanol directly from CO2 and seawater using hybrid algae in sealed clear plastic photobioreactors, a process the Bonita Springs, FL company has patented as its “Direct to Ethanol” technology. This process produces more than 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. That smokes the 400 gallons of ethanol per acre produced from corn.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Georgia Institute of Technology and Membrane Technology & Research, Inc. are also involved in the project mix with Dow and Algenol. They are contributing science, expertise, and technology to the pilot project, which they say will create a “breakthrough process for ethanol production.”

Algenol has also applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct the pilot. Upon approval of the grant, Dow and the other collaborators will work with Algenol to demonstrate the technology at a level that proves it can be implemented on a commercial scale.

Meanwhile DOE last week announced funding of up to $85 million over a three-year period from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of algae-based biofuels and advanced, infrastructure-compatible biofuels. The department said it wants leading scientists and engineers from universities, private industry, and government “to collaborate in developing a thriving domestic biofuels industry.” The collaborations “will allow different sectors in the biofuels industry to work together on new technologies for producing advanced biofuels that can be brought to market without requiring major modifications to the existing fueling infrastructure.”

The new Algenol/Dow pilot-scale biorefinery, which sets the stage for eventual commercial production, has the potential to produce more than 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year using technology that does not use food as feedstock, does not require arable land or fresh water and absorbs CO2 during production, the company says. Algenol also calculates that the biorefinery will consume two dry tons of CO2 obtained from industrial emissions per day.

ExxonMobil is the last of the major oil companies to commit to a major investment – up to $600 million – in algal fuels research and development. That money is split: $300 million for in-house R&D and up to another $300 million for Synthetic Genomics, a La Jolla, CA genetics firm that has worked on algae-to-energy research since 2005.

Here’s what the Exxon suits said:

“This investment comes after several years of planning and study and is an important addition to ExxonMobil’s ongoing efforts to advance breakthrough technologies to help meet the world’s energy challenges,” said Dr. Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

“Meeting the world’s growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources,” Jacobs continued. “We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future if our efforts result in an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel.”

“The real challenge to creating a viable next generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes which will require significant advances in both science and engineering,” said Venter, CEO of Synthetic Genomics.

“The alliance between SGI and ExxonMobil will bring together the complementary capabilities and expertise of both companies to develop innovative solutions that could lead to the large scale production of biofuel from algae,” he said.

ExxonMobil’s engineering and scientific expertise will be utilized throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production through the manufacturing of finished fuels.

“While significant work and years of research and development still must be completed, if successful, algae-based fuels could help meet the world’s growing demand for transportation fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Michael Dolan, senior vice president of ExxonMobil.

A close reading of those carefully-worded and vague quotes – especially the “years of research” one – gives one pause about the seriousness and timeline for this effort. Loads of research over many years on algal biofuel is already out there, why does Exxon have to spend years reinventing that wheel?

A little perspective about this behemoth is appropriate. Remember that Exxon is an oil company and that is where 99.9 percent (or more) of its interest resides. Yes $600 million is an impressive number but this is the company that has set huge profit records over the last few years. In 2008 it beat its own record for the highest profits ever recorded by any company, with net income of $40.6 billion on sales of more than $404 billion. Those sales surpassed the GDP of 120 countries.

So that $600 million is a lot for us and it’s all very nice if anything solid comes from this effort that “could lead” to something, but it’s chump change for this company, the equivalent of what the cleaning crew finds in the sofa cushions after a quarterly board meeting.


Written by William DiBenedetto

21 July, 2009 at 10:04 am

One Response

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  1. Algae can be economically converted into solid fuels, methane gas, or bio-ethanol. It can also be used to generate electricity which in turn can be used to obtain hydrogen fuel to power hydrogen fuel cells.


    21 December, 2011 at 3:15 am

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