Dr Emil Jacobs, the vice-president for research and development at ExxonMobil, says commercial-scale biofuel from algae is 8 years away.

Just six months after ExxonMobil agreed to invest US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) in a six-year project to develop biofuel from microscopic plants, teams of researchers are performing their first experiments.

The project represents a radical departure for the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, which until last year had resisted calls from shareholders to embrace low-carbon energy.

But now the assembled biologists and chemists at ExxonMobil and its partner, Synthetic Genomics, are off to a raring start.

“We’re at full speed right now,” Dr Emil Jacobs, the vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil, said this week while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. “The good news is we’re no longer writing agreements. We’re doing real work.

“I think we need a very aggressive programme and to advance this as fast as we can,” he said.

Two years ago, the US genomics pioneer Craig Venter, who co-founded Synthetic Genomics, said that if oil companies did not want to invest in his biofuels technology, he would develop a solution without them. Now he is looking at taking advanced biofuels to prime time within a decade with the biggest international oil company of them all.

Commercial-scale “biomanufacturing” of biofuel from algae from Exxon could begin in 8 to 10 years, Dr Jacobs predicted.

The products he envisages would be identical at the molecular level to the major components of petrol, diesel and jet fuel, the three main fuels used in transportation. That would make best use of ExxonMobil’s existing oil-processing and distribution infrastructure, as well as the company’s decades of technical expertise in efficiently operating huge oil refineries.

“In a large industry like energy and transportation fuel, you need to have all the advantages you can get, because you need to fit in with other options,” Dr Jacobs said.

The oil company’s search for a promising biofuels project began early in 2008, about 18 months before the partnership with Synthetic Genomics was announced: “We looked at everything we could think of that was bio-based.”

On the basis of four main criteria – scalability, economics, technical feasibility and environmental footprint – algae-based biofuel rose to the top.

“Algae takes up land you would not use to grow crops on, and it doesn’t require pure water. It can use brackish water or salt water,” Dr Jacobs said.

The unicellular plants are also amenable to growing either in shallow open ponds or in more controlled environments such as closed ponds or Plexiglas incubators, and they can be bred quickly to produce customised strains.

Initial experiments to develop the most efficient systems for growing algae and harvesting the oil they produce from carbon dioxide, sunlight and other nutrients will take place in the US at Synthetic Genomics’s laboratories, at a purpose-built greenhouse in La Jolla, California, and at ExxonMobil research facilities in Clinton, New Jersey, and Fairfax, Virginia.

The partners are evaluating potential sites for an intermediate-scale pilot plant that would need about 0.8 hectares of land.

The principal environmental requirements are a warm, sunny location where the temperature fluctuates minimally. A source of carbon dioxide to enrich the algal growth medium is also needed, providing the option to site algal ponds or bio-reactors next to power plants or other large industrial installations equipped with carbon-capture technology. The US Gulf Coast is a prime candidate for algal biofuel projects. Locations along the Arabian Gulf coast are also appealing.

“The Middle East would be an option that would certainly be on our shortlist,” Dr Jacobs said.

ExxonMobil is already a joint venture partner of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, holding the concession for crude production from the Upper Zakum field, one of the Gulf’s biggest offshore oil deposits. That could improve the chances of Abu Dhabi hosting a future algal biofuels joint venture with the US oil firm.

“If we are successful, in a few years we will know whether we’re on the path to commercialisation,” Dr Jacobs predicted.