July 27, 2009

Editorial: Exxon goes green

Exxon's often sharp-tongued skepticism about alternative fuel technologies would seem to make it an unlikely candidate to bankroll research designed to turn algae into fuel.

But in a hopeful sign that attitudes can change, Exxon just announced its first significant foray into biofuels research, a groundbreaking $600 million investment to turn algae into fuel. Its partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a California firm whose founder is best known for decoding human DNA, could shift biofuels' future away from products culled from food crops.

We're pleased that the Irving-based energy giant has put its considerable financial muscle and credibility behind biofuel technology because U.S. companies have trailed behind European firms in this work. The research needs Big Oil's deep pockets and commitments, and no domestic energy company has deeper pockets and more influence than Exxon.

While there is no guarantee of success – and Exxon says the first large-scale commercial plants to produce algae-based fuels could be five to 10 years away – the investment is well timed.

Right now, dozens of companies and universities are vying to find the most suitable strain of algae, the best way to grow it and how to mass-produce it economically. The federal government also is pressing for renewable energy and biofuel breakthroughs to lessen the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

Corn-based ethanol, the most common biofuel in the United States, has lost some of its luster in recent months. Corn grown for fuel competes with what is produced for food and feedstock, resulting in shortages and rising grocery prices.

Algae-based fuel production would not interfere with the food cycle; nor would it require fresh or even clean water. It would use less land than corn-based ethanol and would consume carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate change. This opens the possibility for algae-to-fuel research having broader applications on initiatives designed to capture CO2 from cement and power plants.

Exxon also deserves praise for the innovative approach it is taking to this research. Instead of growing a plant that can be used as a fuel, Synthetic Genomics will try to produce an algae strain that can be turned into a hydrocarbon-like liquid and pumped through Exxon's pipelines and refineries and delivered to service stations. This isn't traditional biofuel production, but rather seeks to genetically engineer fuel to be used by cars, truck and planes without significant engine modifications.

Like any smart company, Exxon is looking to make a profit and has astutely picked this particular time and technology to mark its alternative energy turf. The company may have been painfully late to the competition, but now that it's on the field, the Exxon work looks to be a game-changer.

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