Energy giant ExxonMobil has decided to invest in a firm that is to develop algae that can transform CO2 into hydrocarbons that can be used as a fuel: http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14029874. Many observers of biomass markets had already betted on marine organisms such as algae as the most promising choice of biology for production of non-fossil hydrocarbon fuel. And indeed, it sounds fantastic. You pump the CO2 into the aquatic milieu where you keep your algae. The little creatures eat it and excrete oil that you can scrape from the surface. The firm that ExxonMobil invests in, is Synthetic Genomics, the commercial outfit of a certain Craig Venter, the first man to produce the genetic sequence of a living organism. The objective hence, seems clear. Genetically engineer algae so that they become super fuel producers.
That it is ExxonMobil that invests in this technology, is remarkable. The company isn’t exactly famous for its ambition to stop climate change. In the past few years, the public appreciation for ExxonMobil fell to lows which were close to the public outrage that caused its ancestor Standard Oil to split up. This was because of the fact that the company cheerily produced record profit figures when the whole world was suffering from rising oil and gas prices. But it was also because of the stubbornness with which ExxonMobil refused to do anything to switch our economy away from fossil fuels. ExxonMobil continued to deny that global warming could be a huge problem for mankind. And whereas its competitor BP rebranded itself into ‘Beyond Petroleum’, ExxonMobil scrapped budgets for research into traditional renewable energy such as solar power and windmills. Just bring up the name of the firm at a green tea party, and you are sure to have a nice discussion. But if we look beyond the green zealot talk to the arguments brought forward by ExxonMobil, they make some sense. The company didn’t want to invest in those technologies because it didn’t believe in its prospects of becoming economically viable. I don’t agree with that, but I do believe that every company has the right to choose in which technologies it believes and in which not. The fact that ExxonMobil has decided to invest in algae indicates that they are convinced that this might be the renewable technology of the future. And I wouldn’t underestimate their abilities of scientific judgement. Algae bio-fuel is something to keep on our radar! Something to think about when I plunge my feet into the Atlantic Ocean in the next few days.