By KATIE HOWELL of Greenwire

Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels.

Exxon is joining a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., to research and develop next-generation biofuels produced from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum.

“The world faces a significant challenge to supply the energy required for economic development and improved standards of living while managing greenhouse gas emissions and the risks of climate change,” said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering Co. “It’s going to take integrated solutions and the development of all commercially viable energy sources, improved energy efficiency and effective steps to curb emissions. It is also going to include the development of new technology.”

Exxon Mobil’s collaboration with Synthetic Genomics will last five to six years, Jacobs said, and will involve the creation of a new test facility in San Diego to study algae-growing methods and oil extraction techniques. After that, he said the company could invest billions of dollars more to scale up the technology and bring it to commercial production.

“We’re not claiming to know all the answers,” said Craig Venter, founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, which has so far done early work on algae strains. “There are different approaches to what is truly economically scalable, so we’re testing things and giving a new reality to the timelines and expectations of what it takes to have a global impact on fuel supply.”

Jacobs and Venter are mum about the specific technology the collaborative effort would employ. They said the team would investigate all options, including growing organisms in open ponds and in closed photobioreactors.

They added that they were likewise uncertain what end-product fuels would result from the collaboration. Other startup companies have announced that they were producing both synthetic crude and biodiesel using photosynthetic algae (Greenwire, April 28).

“As far as products to expect from this program, our intent is to make hydrocarbons that look a lot like today’s transportation fuels,” Jacobs said. “We want to produce hydrocarbons that look like today’s refinery products, that can go into a refinery to be processed along with other petroleum streams and then used in the transportation fleet or even jet fuel. And we think we’ve got a good chance of doing that.”

Exxon Mobil launched the partnership after years of being publicly opposed to investing in renewable energy. Privately, though, Jacobs said the company has been investigating the sector for years.

“It’s fair to say that we looked at all the biofuels options,” Jacobs said. “Algae ended up on top.”

Others in the algae-biofuels industry say Exxon Mobil’s investment validates the sector.

“A couple years ago, the petroleum institute said there’s only a couple of years left for oil, and now they’re really finally acting on that,” said Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginOil Inc. “Algae is the feedstock to overtake petroleum. It’s the real alternative to petroleum.”

Environmentalists were more cautious in their appraisal of the Exxon Mobil-Synthetic Genomics plan.

“They’ve never done anything like this before — invested real money in the renewables sector,” said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace. “We’ve always said [the oil industry] has to be part of the climate change solution. We can’t solve anything without companies like Exxon helping.”

He added, “I’m guarding my optimism.”

Exxon Mobil’s timing is noteworthy, Davies said, because of the ongoing energy and climate legislative fight.

“It’s interesting timing as the oil companies are struggling to find a place at the table,” Davies said.

Renewable fuels standard

While Exxon Mobil’s investment marks a sea change in activity in the sector, significant challenges remain in place to achieve wide-scale commercial development.

Next-wave biofuels that could reduce carbon emissions and displace oil imports are politically popular but have not moved into commercial production as fast as supporters would have hoped. Biofuels overall got a boost through a 2007 law that expands the national renewable fuels standard, or RFS, to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.

But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the RFS expansion is too restrictive and could freeze out emerging technologies — including algae-based biofuels. He is calling for changes that would make it more “technology- and feedstock-neutral” to accommodate fuels that could ultimately prove superior in several respects.

“Algae-based fuels are the most obvious example, which, despite having characteristics superior to any renewable fuels in commercial production today, have no home in the RFS,” Bingaman said in a column about the standards published in the Politico newspaper.