Does Exxon know something about biofuel that its peers don’t?

[Global] Oil price has been reporting on the long, drawn-out death of the dream of algal biofuel for years. A field once crowded with startups and hyperbolic promises of industry disruption and energy innovation, the pool has all but dried up.

The incredible abundance of microalgae (there are approximately 70,000 species) and the species’ incredible resilience and ability to acclimatize to seemingly any environment seemed to make it the perfect candidate for the kind of cheap, efficient biomass an economically viable biofuel model needs.

What’s more, the fact that it could be grown in the sea or in a lab and not on land that would otherwise be used to grow food crops (as in the case of corn- and sugar-cane based biofuels), made it an especially promising field of research. But, as it turns out, all these promising traits just weren’t enough to make the promise of algal biofuel a reality.

In practice, making the model commercially viable just hasn’t been possible. As Robert Rapier reported back in 2018 in his “Algal Biofuel Obituary,” the process is just far too expensive. While these biofuel startups have focused on making the process more affordable by decreasing inputs and maximizing output, and even turning to gene editing and CRISPR to make the algae itself more biologically suited to fuel production, it simply hasn’t worked, and any promises that a breakthrough is just around the corner have proven to be empty ones.

While algal biofuel research was all the rage ten years ago, by 2012, Shell had ended its $12 billion Brazilian algae biofuel venture, news had dried up of BP’s $10 million deal with bioscience firm Martek, and Chevron’s five-year partnership with the government-funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory had produced no significant breakthroughs.

By early 2018, Chevron’s website had gone from promising that algae biofuel development was ‘still in the research stage’ to openly admitting its work was unsuccessful, documents the Harvard Political Review.

Meanwhile, even companies that had been entirely dedicated to algal biofuel enterprises have also changed tacks. “Algae companies around the world have also announced intentions to ‘shift’ or diversify their research aims, usually to producing algae for food or nutritional supplements,” the Harvard Political Review continues. “For example, Algenol shifted to carbon capture and fresh water creation in 2015, and Chevron-backed Solazyme announced in 2016 that it would discontinue its biofuels program altogether.”

In the midst of all these companies abandoning the algal biofuel mission, however, one company has held strong to its ambitions and promises within the sector. That company is ExxonMobil. After announcing a major gene editing breakthrough in 2017 (when many algal biofuel companies were already folding or changing strategies) that the supermajor oil company said would significantly increase the lipid concentration of microalgae without diminishing growth, the company has continued to talk openly, if non-specifically, about the great promise and progress of the program.

These promises, however, should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Most of their biofuel announcements come in the form of vague PR-bait and social media posturing. The Harvard Political Review points out that ExxonMobil has a checkered history when it comes to honesty and transparency.

“This is the same company that, not too long ago, was actively discrediting legitimate climate science” with “one of the ‘most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign[s]’ ever, on par with the tobacco industry’s campaign to discredit links between smoking and lung cancer,” lambasts the Review.

“Considering this problematic history of obfuscating climate science, combined with the disappointing outcomes of algae biofuel research, ExxonMobil’s efforts to promote algae biofuels as a climate solution seem disingenuous — more of a public relations strategy than a serious effort to mitigate climate change.”

Ultimately, algal biofuel simply requires far too many finite inputs–“too much fertilizer, too much water, and too much energy” — in an era when all of these inputs are already at a premium and will continue to become scarcer as the world gets warmer. Unless ExxonMobil truly does have some aces up its sleeves that the greater scientific community is unaware of, it’s highly likely that their algal biofuel program, like almost all the others before it, will soon go the way of the dodo.


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