After $100 Million, Exxon Backs Off Algae as Fuel

The next big biofuel? Exxon thinks not.
The next big biofuel? Exxon thinks not.
Photo by Jonas B

Once upon a time -- way back in 2009 -- Exxon Mobil announced they were putting a whole bunch of money into algae. Yep, they were going to turn the goopy seaweed-type stuff you find in the ocean and washed up on the shore into a biofuel that would replace fossil fuels.

And it still might happen, but after spending $100 million in research, Exxon folks have decided it won't be happening just now.

The thing about the advent of biofuels is obviously they've been proved to work, but it's kind of hard to justify farmers continuing to get subsidized to grow corn and other crops for fuel when there's a world food shortage. Filling up your tank with ethanol tends to be a less virtuous enterprise when people are starving, and increasing numbers of farmers grow the biofuel stock instead of food. That's where algae comes in.

Hence the Exxon plan. Back in 2009, the company pledged to invest $600 million in algae fuel research, alongside Synthetic Genomics Inc. (run by the guy who is best known for successfully mapping the human genome.)

While it sounds crazy (Algae could run planes, trains and automobiles? Next you'll say that pigs can do diving tricks and other impossible-sounding possible things could happen), algae could be a good biofuel source, one that could be processed in refineries and turned into oil if they can ever unlock the energy in it in a "financially viable" way, according to The Christian Science Monitor. When it is burnt, algae releases CO2 just like fossil fuels, but the CO2 released by algae gets eaten back up by algae so it's a theoretically cleaner theoretical fuel. Also, algae can be grown with little freshwater and in places that aren't good for growing the kinds of crops that could actually feed people, another win.   Anyways, it's an interesting idea, but after sinking $100 million into the project, Exxon officials announced they're taking a step back on the whole thing. The plan was that $600 million would get the company algae fuel within ten years. Alas, they realized it wasn't going to be happening that quickly or even in a time frame that was within the ballpark of quickly. Unlocking the secrets of algae fuel was going to take long enough that Exxon officials are totally backing off of the whole thing, at least for right now. Not actually ending the project, they said, just sidling back. The amazing part: They spent $100 million and THEN decided to maybe reconsider this whole thing.

Will algae fuel end up being the next trendy fuel of the future? Well, right now, shale plays across the United States have left the country with a glut of oil and natural gas on the market, the kind of a boom that tends to slow down interest in the alt-fuel scene as long as the black gold keeps bubbling up. Odds are good this development had as much to do with Exxon's fizzling algae interest as anything else, or was at least a tiny contributing factor.

Right now it would be easy to make some Exxon jokes at their expense, but it's kind of nifty that the company was thinking outside the box. Investing in scientific research is how new discoveries get made, after all. It's just the teeniest, tiniest bit funny if you're outside the oil industry (outside a world where millions really do slosh around like so much water in a glass) that $100 million went in and that's the end of it for now.

Also, imagine putting actual algae in your gas tank. You know, the slimy stuff you get from the beach, not the fuel form of it they were working on. Seems like that would be pretty equal parts awesome, gross and hilarious. And Exxon officials say they aren't completely done with the research, so maybe someday our cars will be running on algae. If it happens, fingers crossed we have to actually pack real algae into the tank.

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