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Oil from Pond Scum

Oil powers the modern world, both as a source of fuel and as the supply for many of the fundamental building blocks of organic chemistry. Someday—exactly when is the basis of much debate—we will run out of oil, so naturally one wonders what we will do in that eventuality.

One prospect was announced two years ago when the oil giant ExxonMobil teamed up with the ambitious biotech Synthetic Genomics on a project to create biofuels from lowly algae. It’s a big investment—up to $600 million—on a gaudy idea that has a big potential payoff but lots of risks.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the two principals in front of a live audience at CHF’s annual TT Chao Symposium in Houston last week. Emil Jacobs is ExxonMobil’s VP for R&D and J. Craig Venter is Synthetic Genomics’ founder and CEO. The two enthralled an overflowing audience at Rice University with their enthusiasm, humor, and infectious optimism for the possibility of coaxing algae to produce oils that could be used to power planes, trains, and automobiles.

Of course there are many other alternatives to fossil fuels: wind, geothermal, solar, nuclear are all proven and viable. Algae derived biofuels do offer advantages, like deploying photosynthesis to do the actual chemistry, producing energy dense products that we know how to process and transport, and using land and water sources not optimal for other uses.

There are also obstacles to realizing this technology. Among the challenges are: successfully manipulating the finicky biology of algae to produce the desired oily output; creating an engineering solution to large scale production; proving that the energy output is greater than the total energy required for production; and worrying about the CO2 greenhouse gas that will accompany burning of the algal fuel.

The cooperating entities are buoyantly confident and abundantly talented but it may be a decade or more before we know whether the bet paid off. One can only hope both the shareholders and scientists maintain the patience to see it through since much depends on creative long terms solutions to our daunting energy challenges.

.Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Posted In: Technology

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