Exxon sees green gold in algae-based fuels. Skeptics See Greenwashing.

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Some scientists consider Exxon Mobil Body

long-drawn-out quest to turn algae into transportation fuel as little more than a public relations stunt. The oil giant says they are wrong.

Using genetic engineering, Exxon XOM 3.59%

says it is closer to its goal of refueling jets and heavy trucks with oil distilled from the tiny organisms. With government subsidies and incentives, he says he’s on track to make algae-based biofuel commercially viable by the end of the decade.

Skeptics abound. Almost every other major oil company has abandoned algae research after a wave of investment early in the last decade yielded little results. Exxon heavily touts its efforts in near-ubiquitous advertisements featuring ponds of green algae that showcase the company as a leader in developing fuels of the future.

Exxon claimed a breakthrough in 2017, but has yet to demonstrate results. Until the company profitably produces commercial amounts of biofuel, say scientists familiar with algae research, doubts will remain.

Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s vice president for research and development, said he is aware of the perception the company uses algae research to bolster its green credentials. Exxon has made overly optimistic promises that have fueled these criticisms, Mr Swarup said, but the project and its progress are real.

“There’s always that irrational optimism and exuberance at the start,” Mr. Swarup said. “You have to have a vision. After that, it’s “show progress”. “

Greenhouse of Viridos in San Diego.

Colin Rehbein, associate scientist on staff, with the Mini Tasker, a robot that measures how much organic carbon is growing.

The attraction of algae is obvious. One of the most abundant organisms on Earth, algae capture carbon dioxide and, when used as fuel, could reduce life cycle carbon emissions by more than 50% compared to fossil fuels, according to some research. Algae can also grow in salt water on non-arable land, which means it would not compete with agricultural products like corn-based ethanol does.

Exxon continues its algae research with Viridos Inc., a San Diego-based company co-founded by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter. For years, Viridos has modified algae using the CRISPR gene editing tool and other technologies, in hopes of increasing the fat content of algae cells to produce more oil, while strengthening their ability to grow.

But what is technically possible in a lab doesn’t always translate into the field, leaving doubts among other scientists as to whether these efforts could produce sufficient amounts of oilier algae to produce biofuel on a commercial scale. . Exxon and Viridos, formerly known as Synthetic Genomics Inc., claim to have replicated the lab results in larger outdoor grow ponds.

Viridos Ponds in the California Desert near the Salton Sea produced 5 grams of algal oil per square meter per day last year, up from less than 2 in 2018 when it started using its strand of seaweed. exclusive algae. Companies estimate they can reach 10 grams by the end of 2021 and target 15 grams by 2022, a level some see as an inflection point at which algal biofuel becomes commercially viable.

Even if Exxon and Viridos meet the 2022 target, algae will not be economically competitive with fossil fuels for the foreseeable future without substantial government subsidies. But according to Exxon’s calculations, a barrel of algae oil could be worth as much as $ 350, taking into account existing low-carbon fuel standards and tax credits that add up to 260. $ in value per barrel. Traditional crude oil currently sells for less than $ 80 a barrel.

At these prices, Exxon and Viridos can make a modest profit, said Viridos chief executive Oliver Fetzer. The companies target for the end of the decade is 25 grams per meter, which makes the company very attractive, he said.

A research associate collects samples of algae in the mini-ponds.

Once Exxon and Viridos achieve these goals in the outdoor pools, the key will be to sustainably evolve technology and find customers. Viridos says it is in talks with potential customers and partners, including airlines and other major oil companies, about the wider deployment of the technology.

Not everyone is convinced. Professor Kevin Flynn, a marine plankton ecologist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK, said Viridos results need to be peer reviewed and significant hurdles remain to produce at scale. Mr Flynn, who has researched algae-based biofuels for years, said all of his work and that of others indicates the goal is illusory. Exxon and Viridos have announced that they will share their data with the scientific community.

Algae researchers have encountered a myriad of challenges. In addition to limitations in biological productivity, large-scale algae production requires huge amounts of soil, water and fertilizer, making it prohibitive. Meeting just 10% of Europe’s fuel demand with unmodified algae would require flooding three Belgiques in more than 7 inches of water while using 50% of the fertilizers used for European agriculture, Mr. Flynn.

The process also requires large amounts of energy to produce the algae, extract the oil, and then refine it, so much so that producing algae-based biofuels could use more energy than it produces, some researchers have concluded.

“If they ticked all the boxes, I would be very suspicious,” Mr. Flynn said. “There are people who have been trying to do this for decades. “

Exxon and Viridos claim that their genetically modified algae are more productive, reducing the amount of resources needed, and that they recycle fertilizers and other inputs and use salt water, making the process sustainable.

The productivity of different strains of algae is measured and tested at Viridos headquarters in San Diego. The results will contribute to the variety’s potential success on a large scale.

Associate scientist Ryan Kalb works on an algae pond simulator at the Viridos greenhouse in San Diego.

Flynn and other scientists have also raised concerns about the introduction of genetically modified algae into the overwhelming wilderness. Exxon and Viridos say these concerns are overblown and note that the Environmental Protection Agency had to approve before their strands could be deployed outdoors.

The US government has funded algae research since the 1970s. The Department of Energy has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants since 2007 to private companies and other researchers on biofuels based on algae. ‘algae.

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Exxon said it has spent more than $ 300 million on algae research since 2009, less than 3% of its annual research budget. The company said it was researching various technologies to reduce carbon emissions, including other biofuels, carbon capture and hydrogen. In contrast, Exxon spent more than $ 500 million on advertising between 2009 and 2015, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Climatic Change. The Massachusetts Attorney General sued Exxon in 2019 for allegedly misleading consumers about climate change, including through its advertising. Exxon denies the allegations and the case is ongoing.

Martin Keller, director of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said skepticism about algae-based biofuels is understandable, but Viridos appears to have made significant progress.

Algae-based biofuels are a potential solution to reducing carbon emissions from jets and heavy trucking, Keller says. These areas, which produce a significant amount of emissions, are particularly difficult to decarbonize because the electric batteries are too heavy and do not provide sufficient range for airplanes and trucks. The Department of Energy pledged an additional $ 100 million to fund research into biofuels for aviation and other sectors earlier this year.

“From a biological standpoint, this is a success,” said Mr. Keller. “How does the scale? This is the next question.

Different strains of algae from the lab are grown outside of Viridos headquarters in San Diego.

Write to Christopher M. Matthews at [email protected]

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