Exxon: We'll turn algae into gasoline

Exxon Mobil Corp., which earned $45 billion in profit last year, says it will spend $600 million over the next five years trying to figure out ways to turn algae into gasoline in a proposed San Diego lab and sites around the U.S. (As Congress presses forth with the Waxman-Markley biofuels subsidy bill.) 

Exxon says half the money will go to Synthetic Genomics Inc., a private company started by former human genome impresario Craig Venter, "to research and develop next generation biofuels from
photosynthetic algae." That's algae you feed sunlight and carbon dioxide, not expensive corn or sugar. 

Venter and Jacobs took questions from reporters this morning. Excerpts:

How you gonna grow algae? "That could be an open pond, a closed pond, or a photobio reactor," said Jacobs. "Right now we're at the very early stages. Craig and his team have done work on the algae strains," while Exxon looks at refining and distribution. "Our intent is to make hydrocarbons that look a lot like today's transportation fuels."

How soon? Venters says there are already algae strains that can "secrete" fats used to make fuel. Jacobs said that algae gas is "five to ten years" from being car-ready in large quantities at copetitive prices.

Where would Exxon build these plants? "You obviously need a lot of sunlight," said Jacobs. "The algae can use brackish water or seawater. We need a large source of CO2, like a power plant or a refinery." Or maybe by pipeline.

I asked if that meant they'll be building algae lagoons, or reactors, near existing concentrations of refineries -- Houston, the Gulf Coast, the Delaware River near Philadelphia? Big algae plantations downstream from the bridges? "It's a little early to predict that," said Venter. Algae's more than ten times more efficient at producing fuel than corn, he said. Still, "it's not a trivial amount of space."