August 4, 2009

ExxonMobil, DNA pioneer Hook Up To Cook Up Algae Biofuel

Add a top gun DNA scientist, an oil giant and algae and wadda get? A new process from genome scientist J. Craig Venter, funded by ExxonMobile to.

Remember the Exxon Valdez? The supertanker which broke up in 1989 off the Alaskan coast, spilling millions of crude into the pristine seas. It wasn't ail a waste, however, as thousands of marine creatures of many varieties were culled via suffocating, oil-soaked deaths. At the time, the Exxon suits offered up the head of the tanker's captain on a bed of 'my bads' with a side of' 'we;re doing all we can to clean it up' In the 20 years since the EV disaster, Exxon and the entire oil industry has done very little to clean up its act. Alberta Tar Sands anyone?

As oil prices continue to fluctuate like a hooker on a Navy base,Exxon/Mobile is sensing a sea change. Pond change, actually, as the oil conglomerate is wading into the pond scum business big time. Yep, green gold, ditch snot's looking to figure large in ExxonMobile's future. As reported at, Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) plans to spend $600 million to develop biofuels from algae, including more than half to La Jolla, Calif.-based biotech firm Synthetic Genomics, founded by genome scientist J. Craig Venter.

The two companies plan to collaborate on research and development of algae-based fuels compatible with gasoline and diesel. If the alliance meets its technological milestones, Exxon expects to spend about $300 million on internal costs, with potentially more than $300 million going to Synthetic Genomics. First on the agenda is to build a test facility in San Diego, officials said. Exxon noted that years of research were ahead before a commercial product could be available.

ExxonMobil has spent more than $1.5 billion in the past five years on other renewable energy and efficiency projects. Those include technology to improve the efficient use of fuel in automobiles, such as tire liners that keep tires inflated longer, advanced engine oil, and lightweight automobile plastics. In the renewable sector, ExxonMobil has sponsored research in solar, biofuels, and carbon capture and storage, and an affiliate has developed a lithium battery separator film for hybrid electric cars Not everyone's buying into Exxon/Mobile's greenover, some seeing it as a necessary diversionary action while EM carries on its real love affair with, y'know,oil.

Among them, a block of the company's very own investors which continue to criticise it for not doing enough in the renewables sector. "The real challenge to creating a viable next generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes which will require significant advances in both science and engineering," said Venter, CEO of Synthetic Genomics, in a news release. "The alliance between SGI and ExxonMobil will bring together the complementary capabilities and expertise of both companies to develop innovative solutions that could lead to the large scale production of biofuel from algae."

This is the sort of high-minded approach we've come to expect from Ventner which, along with his task-specific technology, hands-on experience and international goodwill, are potent assets about to fall into the hands of a scary crew like ExxonMobile. It's to be hoped that Ventner and his visionaries can come up with a process generating enough juice to give ExxonMobile motivation to leave oil in its place. In the ground.

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