ExxonMobil scales up algae biofuels research

9 Mar 2018 | John McGarrity

ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, is stepping up its commitment to producing algae-based biofuels by expanding a research program with Synthetic Genomics, which the companies say could yield daily output of 10,000 barrels of the alternative fuel a day by 2025.

The companies said a new phase of research includes an outdoor field study that will grow naturally occurring algae in several contained ponds in California to understand technological challenges that cannot easily be replicated in a lab.

“The new outdoor phase is a critical next step in determining a path toward large-scale, commercial production,” the companies said in a joint statement.  

ExxonMobil said it is making “exciting progress” in the lab toward engineering highly efficient algae strains that convert sunlight and CO2 into renewable high energy density biofuel.

Last year, the companies announced breakthrough research in ‘Nature Biotechnology’ on a modified algae strain that more than doubled oil content without significantly inhibiting growth, overcoming a key challenge to deploying the technology at scale.


ExxonMobil said global demand for transportation-related energy is projected to rise about 25% through to 2040, underlining the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

A comprehensive deployment of electric vehicles is viewed by many observers as a major threat to oil companies, but ExxonMobil says that the challenge to fossil fuels producers is overblown.

Last year, the company said it expects just 6% of the global vehicle fleet to be EV by 2040 and even if deployment of alternatives to the combustion engine is much larger, ExxonMobil would easily be able to switch production to higher profit markets, such as diesel used in aircraft and freight.

ExxonMobil produces 4 million barrels of oil a day, and historically has been one of the biggest corporate contributors to climate change sceptic institutes, and remains a major lobbyist against policies to curb greenhouse gases, according to environmentalists.  


A production breakthrough in algae, should it happen, would come in spite of scepticism from many academics that fuel from algae can be produced at sufficient scale to play a major role in replacing petrol and diesel.

Research from the UK’s Swansea University published last year found that to meet the  10% threshold of EU transport fuels expected to be supplied by biofuels, for example, ponds three times the area of Belgium would be needed.

Moreover, large volumes of algae would require fertiliser equivalent to 50% of the current total annual requirements of the EU farming sector.

In addition, huge algae ponds would need to be located near heavy industry to source the volume of CO2 required for photosynthesis on a mass scale, the Swansea University research found.