It’s too bad that algae don’t have heads on their tiny little green bodies. If they did, they’d be laughing them off after what’s happened in the past few months – an incredible period that saw them rise from stagnant pond slime to $600-million superstars, thanks to the recent announcement by ExxonMobil that has set the biofuels world abuzz.
ExxonMobil’s deal with Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) – which caused the Wall Street Journal to call this the “summer of algae” – was merely the biggest (and latest) of a string of announcements that seemed to intensify over a few short weeks. Let it be said that algae are definitely having their day in the sun!
And that’s all they need – as they’ve proven every day for the past billion years, photosynthesizing water and carbon dioxide into the cellular oils, or lipids, that serve as the planet’s basic feedstock, the very root of the food chain. Nothing’s more sustainable than that! And their carbon footprint is also zero because that’s what they eat (CO2), and very efficiently, too! Plus, they can do it in salty or any kind of water!
The first major headline came about six months ago when the aviation industry, spearheaded by Boeing among others, capped a period of tests since 2006 using bio-derived jet fuel made from various mixes of jatropha, algae and camelina oils. The high hope for that test was rewarded June 22, when the results were released – showing that the biofuels, with up to 50% renewable feedstock, “met or exceeded all technical parameters for commercial jet aviation fuel.” Called Bio-SPK, the fuel now goes for approval to the International Aviation Fuel Committee later this year.
The algae world didn’t have time to catch its breath. A week later, Dow Chemical Co. announced it had formed a $50-million partnership with Algenol Biofuels Inc. for a pilot algae-to-ethanol biorefinery at Dow’s Freeport, TX, facility in a co-venture with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Georgia Tech, and Membrane Technology & Research Inc. This came after an earlier announcement by Algenol of a licensing agreement with Sonora Fields for a plant in Mexico that could in time swell to $850 million in algae fuel production.
These announcements came within weeks of other significant algae-related developments – including Solix Biofuels Inc. completing a $16.8-million venture capital funding for a demonstration-scale facility (with petroleum refiner Valero Energy Corp. among the investors) to create energy from algae; Solazyme Inc. adding investors to its $57-million project to synthetically evolve marine microbes into a variety of bioproducts; and Sapphire Energy informing potential investors that it is only three years away from commercial-level production of algae-based fuels.
Dozens of other algae projects sprouted since the first big corporate investment was made in December 2007 by Shell Oil Co. and HR Biopetroleum to form Celana, a pilot project using marine algae in Hawaii. Research for the facility is supported by the University of Hawaii, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Canada’s Dalhousie University, who are screening natural microalgae species to find what strains produce the highest yields and the most oil.
Conoco became another petro-producer to join the algae quest with support of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, part of a joint venture with the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines and NREL to develop transportation fuels – one of many academic efforts now under way, several of them funded by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Defense’s main research arm.
ExxonMobil’s big splash made headlines for several reasons, one that it is the last major oil producer to sample the environment, so to speak. The other petro-producers – including BP, Chevron, Nippon Oil and Sunoco – have invested in renewable energy projects, some heavily, most related to ethanol and cellulose.
Another reason is that SGI (ExxonMobil’s partner) is guided by Dr. J. Craig Venter, who was among the scientists who helped decode the human genome in the 1990s, and whose algae-fuel process is projected to yield 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, compared to 250 for corn-based ethanol.
But the biggest reason, according to most observers, is that ExxonMobil’s corporate earnings last year were $45.22 billion, which means the blockbuster $600-million algae gamble represents merely a 1.32% risk!
The algae would be smiling anyway – if they only had heads.