Algae biofuels update

Many of you have expressed interest in our algae biofuels program, and my inbox is filled with thoughtful comments regarding this important potential source of energy.  Because of your level of interest, I’ve invited Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, to dive a little deeper into the subject for us.  Emil is the expert on our algae biofuels program, and he can address some of your questions and give an update on our progress thus far.   – Ken

In the nearly two years since we first announced our alliance with Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), we’ve made good progress in our research aimed at developing next-generation biofuels from photosynthetic algae.

Basically, we are working to identify and develop strains of algae that could produce refinery feedstocks for the production of transportation fuels. We also need to design and engineer the systems to do this at scale. It’s a big program, and it will take time: We expect to spend more than $600 million on the program over the next decade, if the research and development milestones we’ve identified are met.

In July 2010, we took a significant step forward in our research program with the opening of a greenhouse facility at SGI’s headquarters in La Jolla, Calif.  The greenhouse is enabling the next level of research and testing, and it complements ongoing work in the laboratory, allowing us to grow algae in an environment that better reflects real-world conditions.

I’m often asked exactly what type of fuel we’re talking about.  As far as products to expect from this program, our intent is to make hydrocarbons that look a lot like today’s transportation fuels. Here’s how we envision this working:

We know that certain types of algae produce bio-oils. The challenge is to find and develop the algae strains, and the production systems, that can produce bio-oils at scale with an attractive economic return. The ultimate goal is to have algae bio-oils processed in our refineries to supplement supplies of conventional gasoline, diesel, aviation fuels, and marine fuels.

These fuels would meet the same specifications as today’s products derived from petroleum.  This is important because it helps ensure the biofuels are compatible with existing transportation technology and infrastructure.

How big could this be? At this stage, it is impossible to predict what percentage of global transportation demand could be met with algae biofuels.  But our intent is to make algae an economically attractive and competitive source of fuel for transportation. If we can achieve that goal, the market demand should lead to increased use.

Another question I often get is why we decided to invest in algae versus other biofuels, such as corn-based or sugar-cane-based ethanol.  One reason is that algae can be grown using land or water that is unsuitable for plant or food production.   In other words, unlike many other biofuels, algae biofuels do not compete with the food supply.  Algae can yield more biofuel per acre than plant-based biofuels – currently 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre, per year. That’s almost five times more fuel per acre than sugar cane and almost 10 times more fuel per acre than corn.

The fact that algae production won’t compete for freshwater resources is also a key part in the decision.  We want to use salt water or brackish water to make the best use of the natural environment for the algae – there are a lot of places in the world where sunlight, salt water, and carbon-dioxide are in abundance.

And, algae consume CO2 as they grow, so algae biofuels could help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

While algae could offer great potential as a transportation fuel, there are a number of challenges before us. First, there are more than 20,000 algae strains.  We need to learn which of these strains can achieve the greatest production of bio-oils at the lowest cost.

Second, as we make advancements on selecting the right strains, we also need to test them in several production systems.  That could be an open bioreactor (a pond) or a closed bioreactor (typically transparent tubes or something similar). Each has pros and cons, and at this point we don’t know which will work best. Integrating biology and engineering is the key.

If we do find the right strains and identify the right production system, there’s still another challenge ahead – scaling up the production process.  It will take large, integrated systems to combine all these steps into a full scale, economic operation to produce, upgrade and commercialize biofuels from algae.

These challenges are significant, and overcoming them will take a considerable investment of time, money and scientific expertise. But we believe it’s an effort worth making, particularly given algae’s potential to help enhance the world’s transportation fuel supply and assist in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So, there’s still a lot of work ahead. The good news is that we’re making progress.  Since ExxonMobil and SGI announced the program in 2009, researchers have isolated and engineered a large number of candidate algal strains and developed growth conditions under which these strains could be made more productive.  We’ve identified and tested some of the preferred design characteristics of the different production systems. And we’ve begun life cycle and sustainability studies to assess the impact of each step in the process on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.

The next major milestone in the program, expected later this year, is the opening of an outdoor test facility.  Stay tuned – and please keep your questions and comments coming!


13 Comments

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  1. John Hendricks says:

    When I first heard Mike Dolan describe this project several years ago, my immediate thought was that this is exactly the sort of breakthrough research that Exxon should be pursuing. It’s based on a solid foundation of rapidly developing science, and is a potentially scalable and cost effective way to transition to a new generation of affordable transportation fuels.

    You might want to consider doing more to make the technology-savvy public aware of the complexity and excitement of this type of research. For example, how do you manage uncertainty about the outcome of many individual initiatives in the context of a project portfolio? How do you plan for the inevitable disappointments and dead ends? How do you balance the cost of multiple parallel efforts with the risk of delays? What is the career path of an Exxon researcher on this project?

    It might even be a good subject for a “Nova like” documentary. We need to encourage more public recognition of the adventure and value of corporate research of this quality. The news flow covers the latest gadget or social media app from Silicon Valley, but most people don’t realize that industry actually does large scale energy research without government funding or subsidized markets. The talented students in upcoming generations should know that science, engineering and business are careers that matter.

    The outcome of research is inherently uncertain, but this is definitely a great project.

    - John W. Hendricks

  2. Richard Griffith says:

    To Emil Jacobs:

    I have read your comments above and think that most of the bioengineering information has become available in open literature. Have you looked at “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production.” by
    T.J.Lundquist, I.C. Woertz, N.W.T. Quinn, and J.R. Benemann, October 2010. these authors take known technology developed over years of experience in raceway growth ponds, they adapt the technology to serve four different algae energy objectives and work through the economics of each case. They show that growing algae (Chlorella sp., for example) in metropolitan waste water, using CO2 from sludge combustion and from diesel engine exhaust is economically feasible at today’s oil prices of about $100/bbl.

    If I were in your research group, I would bid to build a one hectare covered pond that could be sectioned for separate experiments authored by your researchers. The entire facility is completely feasible and is “shovel ready.” The one hectare facility can be easily scaled up by factors of ten or one hundred. You have to make arrangements with the municipal waste treatment facilities to use the liquid coming from their primary centrifuge (called centrate flow). This material has been shown to support algae growth. Several researchers report growth rates of 30 gm per square meter pond area per day is easily obtained.

    The most difficult part of the biodiesel process is extraction of the lipid from the algae biomass. What has been your success with various extraction processes?

    Thanks for the forum…

  3. Oggy Bleacher says:

    Lets keep in mind that when considering economic feasibility we shouldn’t compare cost of algae derived oil production to the $100/bbl or the $4 per gallon for petroleum products because all the evidence points to a $15/gallon “real cost” when also taking environmental impact into consideration. That’s more like a $400/bbl and at that price algae suddenly is more realistic. I say take the corn out of our food and put it in our cars.

  4. Len Johnson says:

    I appreciate the emphasis on saltwater. If the research emphasis could be broadened to combined several industries, the cost of production could be mitigated, although yield might be lowered significantly requiring an even larger scale.

    I proposed that we consider using the tertiary cooling from an industrial facility to produce desalination input water. The hyper-saline outflow can be input to both industrial salt production and open ponds for growing algae. Using halophilic algae like dunaliella salina makes open pond possible, and the husbandry has already been developed for beta carotin farms.
    Indeed, periodically recovering salt from the growing ponds will result in production of a healthful form of pink sea salt, and beta carotin is but one bi-product of harvesting the algae. It is essential that all byproducts be profitably redeemed.

    Combining industries like this increases scale profitably, reducing the cost of production. It is also essential that derivative industries, like petro-chemical and chloralkali, be included in development of a new fuel infrastructure.

  5. chris molloy says:

    Emil, I was glad to see that EXXON is committed to bio fuels. I was hoping to get some direction on how exxon would review a bio fuel project? if you could point me to the right person, I would certainly appreciate it.

  6. Michelle Foster says:

    Hi Ken:

    I have four questions right off the top of my head:

    1) Certain strains of algae are native to sewage systems, and it is my understanding that we currently kill them rather than utilize them. Is there any research being done in order to outsource your algae farms to sewage waste plants and then to later recover it for production purposes?

    2) Algae is also being used in air pollution filtration systems at various factories, which seems to work as good, if not better than other air filters because of algae’s affinity for CO2 and other junk that is harmful to us humans. Same question, are you guys thinking in terms of outsourcing the algae for clean-up purposes in filtration systems and then reclaiming it for production?

    3) What are your goals for secondary marketing of bi-products like glycerin, and the plant material? Will you be selling those to other companies who produce make-up, vitamins and other products?

    4) Is algae the only thing you are working on in terms of alternative energy, or are you also developing other technologies to accommodate say solar vehicles, battery vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, alternative electric manufacturing processes that would be far safer than our current production facilitated by nuclear technology and etc?

    I have been preaching the wonders of this little bugger for years!!! I am really excited to know that you guys have picked up on it too! This material is easy to grow, munches down on C02, releases oxygen back into the environment, has multiple bi-products, does not compete with food production, and is a very viable source of bio-fuel! Yet for all of this time, with the exception of a few vitamin companies, people have completely ignored it and done their best to actually kill it!!! Blue green algae is my friend, don’t kill… read more »

    …my friend!!! ;)

    Looking forward to your answer,
    Thanks
    Michelle

  7. Gennady Gayanskyy says:

    Absolutely true but this method is to obtain results by scientific spear.

  8. steve murphy says:

    don’t hold your breath…the big oil companies won’t do anything to threaten their bottom line…in other words there will be NO bio fuels coming from this or any other big oil companies…it’s just a smoke screen to keep america addicted to petroleum.

    • Trenton Blake says:

      The inanity of this comment astounds me.

      ExxonMobil is developing an alternative fuel… do you think they would plan on just giving that away? Of course they won’t threaten their bottom line, they are a company responsible to their shareholders to generate money. If they can get this alternative fuel to production, it will be used to ADD revenue and sales to the existing Petroleum lines. If it turns out to be more viable, it may eventually even replace the petroleum products (though I doubt it in our lifetimes). Call it planning for the future, call it diversification. Unless you believe the “Cars 2″ conspiracy theory that ExxonMobil will create a biofuel simply to discredit biofuels.

  9. Tom Carr says:

    Could these novel strains of algae subsist on hog slurry and other food animal waste streams? My reason for asking is that, with 100 million plus pigs in the USA alone and with each excreting 6 gallons of waste per day, there might be enormous potential in two areas: 1) A greatly expanded supply of algae-derived fuels and 2) the reduction of a significant environmental pollutant.

  10. michel paoletti says:

    Algae biofuels are a very promising option. However it seems that a certain number of companies are not progressing very quickly, in spite of big amounts of financing. In Exxon case where and when is the outdoor test facility opening?

  11. Robert Jones says:

    This is only an area of research that is designed to counter the growing viability of electric or natural gas-powered vehicles.

    The key phrase above is the one that states that these biofuels would work with existing transportation technology and infrastructure.

    This flies against innovation and shows the Fear involved here…that something can be seen as a viable alternative to the conventional gasoline or diesel-powered engine.

    • Phil Hughes says:

      Exxon/Mobil is not attempting to obviate development of CNG and Electric.

      Also, all who maintain that we should dovetail into the existing liquid fuels infrastructure are absolutely correct, beyond any doubt. Parenthetically, the only way that NG should be integrated into our portable fuels portfolio is via Gas to Liquids Conversion to Diesel/Gasoline with the NG Liquids available for Gas Turbines and/or plastic and fabric production.

      CNG and Electric Power have huge problems.

      CNG is extremely dangerous on a per energy basis. And the different permutations of the transmission, storage and handling modes and their accompanying failure modes, especially considering human factors, are enormous and require intense study, yet proponents such as Chesapeake Energy have not advocated or awaited any comprehensive study on the fearful conditions that would exist if we bring in even 4 million BOE per day of Natural Gas per day into our cities.

      Just extrapolating domestic accident rates on volume alone at current levels and factoring in unfortunate experiences from East Asia, one can easily expect one major accident per city per month not to consider the effects of decline and human negligence on a new NG infrastructure. And the types of death and maiming with burns and dismemberment carry an enormous degree of terror.

      It is also interesting to note that after all of the regulations governing cylinder safety and covering testing of such where it was initially specified that the cylinders should be heated uniformly in a blast furnace, it was found that the cylinders in one type of car failed because it was heated only in the center.

      Also a question I posed to Chesapeake: What happens in the scenario that a fire exists at one end of a house and heats the other end where the car is in the garage enough to cause relief venting… read more »

      …well-before the flame front hits. This only need happen once before it will be difficult to find firefighters who will want to fight any residential fire.

      We know the failure modes of liquid fuel systems. The failure modes of CNG/LNG are endless. Yet there are those who would committ the fate of our nation to such?

      A fundamental reason that Artificial Intelligence will never be fully implemented is that only humans will ever be able to recognize a situation where there is not solution. In similar manner, as opposed to liquid fuels, it is impossible to even touch upon all of the different permutations that CNG/LNG transmission, storage and handling will develop and the multitude of failure modes associated with each.

      Then with electric vehicles, one only need consider that while a gallon equivalent of low entropy electric power may afford a range of 150 miles, the 87 KWH of power needs to come from the power company and the only reason that such is not 10 cents per KWH more is Coal which has only 1/3 of the cost basis of Natural Gas and will still have only 1/2 of the cost basis even after Clean Coal Conversion. In fact, it may weill be that in the presence of a CO2 Pipeline Network where the initial objective is EOR with the residual going to Biodiesel from Algae production, there will be little or essentially no added cost. Conservative estimates are that Biodiesel from Algae is competitive with $100 per barrel and its price is not very sensitive to feedstock prices.

      Finally, regarding electric vehicles, assuming the battery technology evolves to where we are not depleting key resources, that they will not spontaneously ignite, and that the economics of battery replacement will not entail disposable cars, the load on the power grid is evident when considering that putting that nominal 90 KWH of energy into that car is the equivalent of running 5 1500 watt spaceheaters in the garage for 12 hours overnight.

      All who advance systems on the correct path are not trying to obviate any good valid technology, they are trying to pursue a safe, conservative longterm path which are free of insanely tragic diversions.

      Phil A. Hughes

      Hughes Synergies Corporation
      HughesSynergies.com

  12. John Hendricks says:

    When I first heard Mike Dolan describe this project several years ago, my immediate thought was that this is exactly the sort of breakthrough research that Exxon should be pursuing. It’s based on a solid foundation of rapidly developing science, and is a potentially scalable and cost effective way to transition to a new generation of affordable transportation fuels.

    You might want to consider doing more to make the technology-savvy public aware of the complexity and excitement of this type of research. For example, how do you manage uncertainty about the outcome of many individual initiatives in the context of a project portfolio? How do you plan for the inevitable disappointments and dead ends? How do you balance the cost of multiple parallel efforts with the risk of delays? What is the career path of an Exxon researcher on this project?

    It might even be a good subject for a “Nova like” documentary. We need to encourage more public recognition of the adventure and value of corporate research of this quality. The news flow covers the latest gadget or social media app from Silicon Valley, but most people don’t realize that industry actually does large scale energy research without government funding or subsidized markets. The talented students in upcoming generations should know that science, engineering and business are careers that matter.

    The outcome of research is inherently uncertain, but this is definitely a great project.

    - John W. Hendricks

  13. Richard Griffith says:

    To Emil Jacobs:

    I have read your comments above and think that most of the bioengineering information has become available in open literature. Have you looked at “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production.” by
    T.J.Lundquist, I.C. Woertz, N.W.T. Quinn, and J.R. Benemann, October 2010. these authors take known technology developed over years of experience in raceway growth ponds, they adapt the technology to serve four different algae energy objectives and work through the economics of each case. They show that growing algae (Chlorella sp., for example) in metropolitan waste water, using CO2 from sludge combustion and from diesel engine exhaust is economically feasible at today’s oil prices of about $100/bbl.

    If I were in your research group, I would bid to build a one hectare covered pond that could be sectioned for separate experiments authored by your researchers. The entire facility is completely feasible and is “shovel ready.” The one hectare facility can be easily scaled up by factors of ten or one hundred. You have to make arrangements with the municipal waste treatment facilities to use the liquid coming from their primary centrifuge (called centrate flow). This material has been shown to support algae growth. Several researchers report growth rates of 30 gm per square meter pond area per day is easily obtained.

    The most difficult part of the biodiesel process is extraction of the lipid from the algae biomass. What has been your success with various extraction processes?

    Thanks for the forum…

  14. Oggy Bleacher says:

    Lets keep in mind that when considering economic feasibility we shouldn’t compare cost of algae derived oil production to the $100/bbl or the $4 per gallon for petroleum products because all the evidence points to a $15/gallon “real cost” when also taking environmental impact into consideration. That’s more like a $400/bbl and at that price algae suddenly is more realistic. I say take the corn out of our food and put it in our cars.