July 27, 2009

Algae: A promising biofuel

WASHINGTON - SOME call it pond scum, but algae is drawing increasing attention as a source of biofuel that can help replace petroleum or fuels made from crops like corn or soybeans.

The notion of using algae to produce fuel has been around for decades, but has garnered new interest and investment amid a search for energy sources that will limit carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change.

Algae has obvious advantages over fossil fuels and biofuels from food-based crops, but has an additional benefit in that it absorbs carbon dioxide, and thus can be used to 'scrub' emissions from coal-burning power plants, for example.

In a sign of the new enthusiasm, ExxonMobil announced in mid-July it would invest up to US$600 million (S$864 million) in an alliance with biotech firm Synthetic Genomics to make a new biofuel from photosynthetic algae.

The biggest US energy firm said it was partnering with the firm headed by Craig Venter, a researcher who founded Human Genome Sciences and Celera Genomics and has worked on projects to sequence the genomes of humans, fruit flies and other organisms.

Dow Chemical announced plans in June to join Algenol Biofuels in a pilot-scale project to use algae and carbon dioxide to produce ethanol fuel.

These investments 'were a great shot in arm for the industry, but you've seen other solid investments', said Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, which was formed in 2008 and has some 150 members including big firms such as Boeing and Raytheon.

Ms Rosenthal estimates over US$1 billion is being invested in algae biofuels, saying that 'it shows a lot of promise.' She said over 1,000 participants are expected at the organization's October summit in California. -- AFP

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