Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Exxon to Produce Biofuel from Algae

The New York Times reports that Exxon Mobil will be investing $600 million to produce liquid biofuel from green algae for transportation purposes, in partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics -- though it could be 5-10 years before we see any large-scale commercial production of algae-based fuels. According to Exxon, algae has the potential to produce more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, which is significantly more than the 650 gallons for palm trees, 450 gallons for sugar cane, and 250 gallons for corn. The biofuel derived from algae is supposedly similar in chemical structure to petroleum products and should be compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, algae can be grown in areas that aren't suitable for farming food crops and could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Apparently, Exxon and Synthetic Genomics plan to genetically engineer new strains of algae that will be able to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I was never a big fan of the idea of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, especially when it means using crops that would otherwise be used to feed people -- there are still millions of starving people living on this planet of ours. Furthermore, to grow the crops at a scale that will make a difference, we would have to cut down even more forests to make way for farm land. Then there's the issue of carbon emissions, and using biofuels will not help the environment in that area either. However, in this case, if Exxon and Synthetic Genomics can pull it off, then this algae-based biofuel could be promising.

[Aside: Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel, but there are still so many hurdles in the way before it can even become practical. In the meantime, it makes sense to look at other fuel alternatives, but let's hope that we don't give up quite yet on hydrogen.]

The New York Times' Green Inc. blog has posted an article about the biofuel debate.

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