October 9, 2009


What do Big Oil and pond scum have in common? Your likely answer is "A lot." But probably not for the right reasons, including those that motivate the question.

The petroleum-pond-scum connection is one of the most exciting phenomena to come down the road in a long time. It took a $600 million investment by ExxonMobil to give it oomph. That's the amount ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. is plowing into an algae fuel deal it struck with start-up Synthetic Genomics Inc., based in La Jolla, Calif.

That's right, "genomics," as in the study of genomes, most familiar to the majority of us as it relates to efforts to determine entire DNA sequences of organisms, plus something called "fine-scale genetic mapping efforts."

For the Environmental Protection Agency, genomics encompasses a broader scope of scientific-inquiry technologies, such as those that entertain the prospect of making fuel from the nonflowering, stemless, single-celled, chlorophyll-rich stuff called algae, which -- with the exception of the havoc it can wreak on the environment -- we tend to ignore.

Typical of the fast-forward-looking companies emerging on the 21st-century scene, SGI looks to science to try to sustainably meet the world's ever-escalating demands for "critical resources." This includes oil. And when the SGIs of the world confront the reality that in less than 300 years we are predicted to globally deplete the oil that took hundreds of millions of years to form, it thinks of one thing.

That's right: algae.

University research suggests algae, in the form of biodiesel, could supply enough fuel to meet all of our country's transportation needs utilizing only 0.2 percent of the nation's land. Enough algae can be grown to replace all U.S. transportation on 15,000 square miles, or 4.5 million acres. That's about the size of our state.

Furthermore, algae can be grown using land and water unsuitable for plant or food production. A select algae species produces bio-oils through photosynthesis, requiring only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Which brings up the point that algae-growing consumes carbon dioxide, thus mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil has been considering algae's promise for a while. It determined "after considerable study" that the company sees "potential benefits and advantages" in algae's development as a biodiesel fuel. Why else would they take out a full-page ad in The New Yorker magazine picturing "Joe Weissman, Scientist" casually posed beneath magnified microscopic algae particles, appearing to float in space, in order to ask -- and answer -- the question: "Algae-powered cars: Science fiction or science?"

SGI's answer is the latter. ExxonMobil has put some fairly big money out there to help prove the point and finance one of the "disruptive technologies" that many believe will help save our planet.

Disruption of our current course can't come too soon.

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