Synthetic Genomics Partners with Exxon in Bid to Make Fuel from Algae

Exxon Mobil, it seems, has come a long way from the days when its CEO dismissively referred to alternative fuel sources, particularly ethanol, as "moonshine."

The company is set to pump some $600 million into a biofuel initiative in cooperation with Synthetic Genomics, a leading biotechnology company founded by J. Craig Ventner, one of the world's genomics pioneers. Their goal: to produce liquid fuels for use in transportation applications from algae, which are unique organisms widely found in both aquatic and terrestrial environments.

On the heels of CEO Rex Tillerson's "moonshine" remarks, Exxon Mobil has plunged headlong into the world of alternative fuel development. The move comes at a time when the Obama administration is set to reward those who pursue environmentally friendly sources of energy. The United States military is also seeking to reduce its dependence on oil--and any company that comes through with a safe, economically feasible alternative would cash in big.

Supporters of the initiative praise the move as innovative and promising. Algae have several definitive properties that other biofuel sources lack: they don't take up vital tracts of arable land the way crop-based biofuels do and can be farmed in seawater or even small pools of standing water. Also, they absorb carbon dioxide--like many other plants--and the Synthetic Geonomics/Exxon Mobil partnership's goal is to produce a genetically altered form of algae that can take in massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Thus, algae could simultaneously provide clean fuel while absorbing significant amounts of greenhouse gas. Also, it's estimated that algae-based biofuel production could yield as much as 2,000 gallons of fuel per production acre, compared to the 250 gallons per acre that corn produces.

Exxon Mobil's critics are many, and they are already questioning the true motivations behind the company's move. The most obvious objection is that the initiative is little more than a public relations effort that simultaneously plugs a gaping hole in the company's diversification policy. Considering the unthinkable profits Exxon Mobil has raked in from oil in recent years, others have been quick to suggest that the company's commitment to alternative fuel sources will prove fickle--especially given its track record.

It's going to take some time to find out one way or the other. Exxon Mobil's research and engineering department says that any development of algae-based transportation fuel "is not going to be easy" and is "at least 5 to 10 years away."

Time will tell if Exxon Mobil sticks with it that long.

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