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Big oil companies touted algae as a climate solution. Now everyone has taken out financing | biofuels Story-level




EITHEROne by one, the big oil companies have touted their investments in algae biofuels as the future of low-carbon transportation, and one by one, they have all backed out. Now, after the last remaining algae advocate, ExxonMobil, announced its withdrawal, experts say they are disappointed but not surprised.

Algae research was central to Exxon’s green marketing campaigns for years, and frequently criticized as a greenwash rather than a genuine investigative effort.

But several of his former research partners told The Guardian that he was serious about the potential of algae biofuels, which explains why he stayed in the field well past the point where other oil companies had given up, but didn’t. serious enough.

In its 12 years in space, Exxon invested $350 million in algae biofuels, according to spokesman Casey Norton. (Norton says that’s more than double what the company spent promoting this research in ads.)

Still, all of the algae researchers who spoke to The Guardian said that a real effort to commercialize biofuels, algae or otherwise, requires several billion dollars and a long-term dedication to overcoming the seemingly fundamental biological limitations of biofuels. wild organisms. And no oil company was willing to go that far.

“Bringing these technologies to market is very challenging and very expensive,” said George Huber, whose biofuels research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison has been funded by Exxon for years. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s great that they’re making these commitments, but they know they need to start putting more capital into these projects.”

He added: “They are driven by Wall Street and they have to keep their share prices up and keep their shareholders happy. And usually that’s making a lot of money. All the oil companies have been talking about the need to get into more sustainable things, but it’s hard to make money from them. And most of their money comes from oil.”

The appeal of algae as a feedstock for biofuels was twofold: Because they grow in high concentrations in ponds, they don’t compete with food crops for arable land. And some strains produce large amounts of lipids, fatty acids that can produce an oil, which can be turned into fuel relatively easily. But competing with the abundantly available and heavily subsidized fossil fuels, particularly gas, was not so easy.

One of the biggest challenges was that wild strains of algae could not provide the high lipid levels needed to produce large amounts of fuel, said Todd Peterson, former chief technology officer of Viridos, the former and now former algae research partner of Exxon.

That’s why Viridos focused on genetically engineering organisms to maximize lipid production. And they were making real progress. The magic formula for the commercial viability of algal biofuels is a strain that can produce 15g of oil per square meter in an outdoor environment, and a Viridos strain had reached 10. “It is difficult to engineer an organism that has hundreds of millions of years to behave differently,” Peterson said.

Peterson, who worked for the company from 2013 to 2018, said he always had the impression that the Exxon scientists Viridos worked with were serious about research. “I’m disappointed,” he said of Exxon’s withdrawal from algae, “but I try to keep an open mind. You never know what the changing priorities are within a company.”

Viridos laid off 60% of its workforce following Exxon’s withdrawal from the sector in December 2022, which was only revealed by Bloomberg last month. On Monday, Viridos announced a $25 million funding round led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy, with Chevron and United Airlines also contributing.

Despite making enormous progress over the past decade, most algal researchers say algal biofuels on the kind of scale needed to meet current fuel demands are still at least a decade away, and more likely. within two decades. It’s possible that more investment during the years when oil companies touted their investments in space would have moved the needle faster. Exxon eventually invested just over half of the $600 million it once promised in 2009according to Norton.

Several former Viridos employees who requested anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements said Exxon’s research funding never seemed like much, but the company sent large teams into algae ponds to get video for its ads. “I’d see them run and I’d think I wish they’d given us more research funding instead of spending so much on advertising,” said one former employee.

It is not uncommon for companies to change their investment priorities over time as markets and revenues change.

The first big investments in algae biofuels research occurred during the 1970s, when oil supplies were constrained thanks to the OPEC embargo against the United States, and all major oil companies invested funds in alternative fuels and fuel technology. renewable energy. At the time, Exxon was investing in everything from solar and nuclear power to lithium batteries and climate change research. When the oil market bottomed out in the 1980s, all of that stopped.

Similarly, oil majors BP, Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil bet on algae beginning in 2008, announcing hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding. Then the fracking boom fizzled out in 2015, and one by one they pulled out. Some, like Shell, continued to invest heavily in biofuels more broadly, but only Exxon stuck to algae.

Today, in addition to Exxon’s withdrawal, there are other reasons to question the algae promise.

The algae boom came at a time in the early 2000s when it seemed the world still needed to run on some kind of liquid fuel, said Matthew Posewitz of the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Posewitz’s algae lab was funded by Exxon for eight years. “Now there’s another transition: a lot of ground transportation will be electrified and you may not need liquid fuels there, which means a smaller market, basically just planes and ships.”

Posewitz credited Exxon for being a very involved partner. “They are paying attention to the data and influencing research directions and informing academics about market needs,” Posewitz said. And that’s what you want. Sometimes academics can go in a direction that doesn’t meet any market need.”

All the researchers who spoke to The Guardian agreed: what was needed to make algae fuels a success was a longer runway and funding in the billions, closer to what oil companies spend on fossil fuels. .

“It was great as long as Exxon was interested, but ultimately it will take more time and investment to mature this from a fuels perspective and they have other priorities,” Posewitz said.

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