Oil giant ExxonMobil’s decision to abandon its 14-year, multi-million-dollar support for research into making fuel from algae ended years of funding for projects at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Backing for research into developing high-yield algae at Mines was terminated at the end of last year and a NREL project to develop a computer model to test farm-scale biofuel productivity will conclude this spring.
“When Exxon funded our lab, it was always about basic science,” Matthew Posewitz, a Mines chemistry professor, said. Exxon provided millions of dollars in the search and development of fast-growing algae.
“They are very supportive of the research, but now they are funding other carbon capture research,” Posewitz said.
Since 2009, Exxon has spent $350 million on projects to develop a fuel from the lipids — a fatty acid — in algae.
The company touted its research in print, video ads and on social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook. There was even a prediction that 10,000 barrels of biofuels could be produced by 2025.
The efforts, however, also drew criticism from some environment groups, which contended that the project was just greenwashing — misleading information to make Exxon look environmentally friendly.
At the end of 2022, Exxon began to unwind its support for algae, cutting funding to Viridos Inc. a California biotech company that had been the oil company’s prime partner in algae fuel development and then concluding the Mines and NREL projects.
“Algae still has real promise as a renewable source of fuel, but it has not yet reached a level we believe is necessary to achieve the commercial and global scale needed to economically replace existing sources of energy,” Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman, said in an email
Exxon is shifting to focusing on technologies that it says can be scaled-up more quickly, such as carbon capture and hydrogen — move that was reinforced by subsidies for those technologies in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, Exxon’s CEO Darren Woods said during the company’s fourth quarter earnings call.
“Our business requires that we make decisions around the commercial viability of R&D projects,” Spitler said. “We announced plans to invest $17 billion in lower emission initiatives from 2022 to 2027. This includes investments in carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and other biofuels.”
8 years of research at Mines lab over, but not done
The decision ended an eight-year partnership with the Posewitz Research Group in a search for fast growing algae — an aquatic, often microscopic, organism that, like land-based plants, lives through photosynthesis.
“They are photosynthetic organisms that are incredibly efficient,” Posewitz said.
For developing algae fuels two key challenges are growing enough algae — biomass — and increasing the lipid content of each organism. Posewitz’s lab has “focused on maximizing bio-productivity.”
Posewitz and Exxon looked for hearty algae in the hottest, saltiest bodies of water, including California’s Mono Lake, the Great Salt Lake and the Gulf of Mexico.
“The experimental design was basically ‘The Hunger Games,’” Posewitz said. A Home Depot bucket-worth of Gulf of Mexico water was put in a bioreactor in the laboratory in a high-heat, high-salt, high-light environment to see which organism survived best.
The winner was Picochlorum celeri, which was able to double its biomass in as little as two hours, 20% to 75% faster than other cell lines.
“A very fast doubling time is essential in the batch process for establishing a productive level of biomass and for recovering from process upsets,” according to one of the group’s research papers.
“On its best days celeri can produce 50 grams of biomass per square meter,” Posewitz said. The average annual production of a corn field is 4 to 5 grams. The goal is to get the algae to a steady 20 to 30 grams per year.
As promising as P. celeri is, one drawback is that it’s not a particularly good lipid producer, Posewitz said. Viridos has been working on increasing the lipid content of test algae.
Posewitz, who has been studying photosynthesis for 25 years, said his lab will continue its work, including genetic engineering of P. celeri, with other funding.
“At some level we are trying to change the world and that’s a heavy lift,” Posewitz said.
Exxon’s NREL project built a computer simulator of a pond to test the impact of farm-scale operations on biomass and biofuel yield and the effects of different engineered algae strains, according to a statement from the lab.
The Exxon project, the statement said, was designed to run three years, concluding this spring with results published “in the near future.”
David Glickson, an NREL spokesman, said the backing for the project is part of a $100 million, 10-year agreement between Exxon and NREL struck in 2019 for a range of projects. That is the largest financial commitment to the lab, outside government funding.
NREL has been doing research on algal fuels for more than 10 years and will continue its ongoing research into developing algae strains, cultivation, carbon capture and product conversion technology to market adoption, the statement said.
Most of the work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, the statement said.