Exxon Mobil’s renewable energy moonshots

[Global] Back in June, the oil and gas major Exxon Mobil (XOM) announced that its joint venture with Synthetic Genomics had yielded a major breakthrough on the production of usable lipids from microalgae. As I explained in an article published at the time, this overcoming of the seemingly insurmountable “lipid trigger” was necessary for the commercialization of algae-derived fuels and chemicals.

Also during the summer, Exxon Mobil’s competitor Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B) announced that it had embarked on a number of clean energy investments expected to eventually total $1 billion annually. At the time, I described this as evidence that the company was planning for a “different energy reality.” Now, according to an article by Bloomberg, Exxon Mobil is also charting a similar course into the clean energy sector. This development has a number of important implications for both the company’s long-term trajectory and the broader energy industry.

The Bloomberg article states that Exxon Mobil is pursuing research into as many as 10 different “key areas”, of which last summer’s microalgae breakthrough represents only one. More details have been released regarding the latter too, however, such as the fact that the company is investigating the use of “ponds or oceans” for algae production.

Much of the practical research into microalgae production by companies such as TerraVia (OTCPK:TVIAQ), formerly Solazyme, has focused on the use of “bioreactors” that grow the biomass vertically rather than horizontally. This potentially allows for greater yields but at a much higher capital cost. While horizontal growing systems date back to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program in the 1980s, Exxon Mobil would easily be the largest company to be commercializing them.


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