ExxonMobil’s decade-old algae-to-biofuel venture is long on PR, short on research, and even shorter on proof that it will actually work, according to a recent expert assessment. But for a fossil giant seemingly set on greenwashing, that might be just fine.
E&E News writes that the technology to extract biofuel from algae is still “wildly expensive,” leaving ExxonMobil as the only major oil company still even bothering to look into it.
“It’s like I give you C$1 million and you convert it to $1 bills, and you light it on fire to make energy,” said Avigad Vonshak, a professor emeritus and algae expert at Israel’s Ben Gurion University. “I think it will be from stupid to nonsensical to believe that in any given time it will be an economically feasible process to extract fuels from microalgae.”
E&E writes that ExxonMobil’s interest in algae-based fuels began in 2009, “during a biofuels boomlet,” with the unveiling of a US$600-million partnership with California-based Synthetic Genomics Inc.
It was during this brief moment in the sun for ethanol that ExxonMobil “announced its foray into algae,” a venture premised on the fact that, unlike ethanol feedstocks like corn and sugar cane, algae “can be grown in arid conditions and in brackish water, meaning it is not competing for land with farmers growing food.” Biochemically speaking, the algae use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into lipids, which are then available to be used as fuel.
Getting to work in the lab, the Exxon-Synthetic partnership eventually (eight years later) figured out how to overcome one of the fundamental drawbacks to using algae as a source for fuel: in nature, the little single-celled organisms can grow either fat, or quickly—but not at the same time.
But as revealed in an ongoing study in Arizona, conducted by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), huge challenges remain, notes E&E. One is that “high evaporation rates in arid regions can cause saline levels to rise to dangerous levels for algae, and removing the salt is expensive.”
Adding further significant costs, NREL found, would be the imperative to “dispose of the salty water by injecting it deep into underground wells, much as oil and gas drilling operations do.”
And even with no need to compete with farmers for space, land availability is still an issue, writes E&E. “NREL’s model for a commercial-scale algae facility calls for 5,000 acres of open-air algae ponds plus an additional 2,000 acres for support facilities.”
To top it all off, algae-to-fuel has terrible efficiency values. “ExxonMobil would need a facility at least NREL’s size just to reach its 10,000-barrel-a-day goal,” Vonshak said, a requirement that isn’t economically sustainable, and simply won’t work.
“The numbers don’t fit,” he told E&E.
Taking a similarly dim view of algae’s potential as a replacement for gasoline is Jeremy Martin, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. While noting that algae-based fuel “may yet become an alternative to high-value petrochemical products, which would aid the world’s attempts to green the economy,” he panned the idea that it could fuel transportation (even in the aviation sector) to any significant degree. “If this is their answer for liquid transportation fuels, it tells me they are not serious about replacing petroleum in this space,” he said.
Likewise skeptical is Brown University climate denial expert Robert Brulle. Noting that ExxonMobil’s $1.5 billion in spending on corporate promotion across all media since 2010 exceeds its investment in algae-based research, Brulle nonetheless believes that algae is serving a critical purpose for the company.
“They’re not selling you algae. They’re selling you ‘there’s good guys at Exxon’,” he said. Channelling the masters of the greenwash more fully, he added: “You don’t need to regulate us, you don’t need to sue us. We’re good guys.”