ExxonMobil Is Going Green…Algae, that Is! [On Location]

This post is presented by SBE, the Society for Biological Engineering--a global organization of leading engineers and scientists dedicated to advancing the integration of biology with engineering.

2011 Spring Meeting

In his keynote address to the AIChE Spring 2011 Conference, Dr. F. Emil Jacobs, VP of R & D, ExxonMobil Research and Development Company, discussed the company's views on the outlook for energy over the next 20 years, taking into consideration population growth and economic activity expansion and how they will affect energy use and demand.

Integrated Approach

Exxon-Mobil takes an integrated approach to future energy development, considering with equal importance:

  • Improving energy efficiency
  • Mitigating emissions
  • Developing new sources of supply

One of the more interesting investigations into new sources of supply is algal production of fuels and oils.

Thinking "Green"

ExxonMobil is investing considerable time and talent into the concept of using algae to metabolically produce oils. Oils that are surprisingly similar to certain petroleum oils, and so with significantly greater potential uses than simply "bio-diesel." In order to make oil from algae a reality, many factors must be address, and many problems solved. At the front end, the choice of which strain(s) of algae will perform best in this new process environment needs to be addressed. ExxonMobil and its partner, Synthetic Genomics, are currently studying how to maximize output while minimizing production costs with various strains of algae.

There is also the question of whether an open process (i.e., growing the algae in an open environment like a pond) or a closed process (e.g., using clear tubular reactors in a more industrial setting) would be the most effective. Open systems can use land that is unsuitable for crop production to avoid the "food competition," which is currently a political issue with corn and cane-based ethanol. However, it will still consume large surface areas and is essentially an uncontrolled environment. Constructed reactor systems will be much more capital intensive (for the growth/fermentation portion of the process) but would be more controlled, which may lead to more efficiencies. There are other questions to be answered about closed systems.

Closed System Issues

Some of the key technical and operational aspects of a closed system that are being investigated include:

  • Optimal light path length
  • Hydrodynamics of the three-phase system: water, algae, light
  • Temperature control
  • Reactor tube surface fouling mitigation
  • Costs of production

A lot of breakthrough technology will be needed to arrive at a cost-effective and sustainable solution. ExxonMobil is just one of the companies investing this long-term goal.

For More Information

Visit Exxonmobil.com.

Do you think there's a future in oil-producing algae?