In California, ExxonMobil, the last of the oil majors to commit to a major investment in biofuels, announced that its Research and Engineering unit will invest $300 million in inhouse algae research, and up to an additional $300 million in La Jolla-based Synthetic Genomics, the genetics firm founded by J. Craig Venter that has been working on algae-to-energy research since 2005. SGI has developed techniques for harvesting algal oils, and will focus research on increasing lipid content by manipulating algal strains. The ExxonMobil investment in SGI is contingent on the meeting of R&D goals, according to a report in the New York Times.
The venture is presented as a research collaboration rather than a commercialization effort at his stage, and could be classified to some extent opposite a $500 million investment made in 2007 by BP in the Joint Bioenergy Institute.
For sheer magnitude of investment, the focus on a single bioenergy feedstock, and the focus on a single R&D partner in Synthetic Genomics, the announcement is without parallel in biofuels history.
"Exxon-Mobil's $600 million dollar commitment to algae based bio-crude and biofuels," said Will Thurmond, author of the Algae2020 study, "represents another affirmative commitment by major petroleum companies, research laboratories, private investors and governments that are looking beyond the research and development phase, and are now entering the next stage to scale up and build out industrial-scale systems based on innovative, emerging and disruptive technologies."
It may not be possible to interpret this investment as, in itself, a new and imminent path towards algal fuel commercialization, but it can be regarded as confirmation that ExxonMobil, after a famously long delay, has entered the renewable energy arena, and is placing its bet on algae.