Exxon making a biofuel investment

The oil giant Exxon Mobil said it will make its first major investment – US$600 million -- in biofuels, joining the California-based biotech company Synthetic Genomics to develop transportation fuels from algae, the Associated Press reported. “This is not going to be easy, and there are no guarantees of success,” said Emil Jacobs, a vice president at Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering Company.

Despite record-breaking profits in recent years, Exxon has been criticised by environmental groups, members of the United States Congress and shareholders for not spending enough money to explore alternative energy options. The initial investment still is tiny compared with the company’s spending to find new supplies of crude and natural gas.

Exxon says that photosynthetic algae appears to be a viable, long-term candidate for a biofuel source that could be produced on a large scale. If the partnership with Synthetic Genomics is successful, the AP reported, pumping algae-based petrol at Exxon service stations will mean additional, multibillion-dollar investments for mass production.

Jacobs said the project involves three critical steps: identifying algae strains that can produce suitable types of oil quickly and at low costs; determining the best way to grow the algae; and developing systems to harvest enough for commercial purposes.

Algae can be grown using land and water unsuitable for other crop and food production, Jacobs said. The organisms also consume carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas blamed for climate change — and can produce an oil with molecular structures similar to the petroleum products Exxon already makes. Algae strains are considered a sustainable source for second-generation biofuels.

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