Exxon Mobil Corp.’s investment in algae biofuels may turn out to be good for business, and public relations. The oil giant, under pressure from states attorneys general and shareholders about what it had previously known about climate change, is letting the general public know about its forays into clean energy.
With one of the biggest audiences on hand to watch, Exxon released a media campaign at the Olympic games in Rio, which aired to American audiences. Besides its work on algae, it also aired commercials on carbon capture from power plants and its work on making more fuel efficient vehicles.
Exxon didn’t just start its ventures into algae and carbon capture. Its investments in algae began in 2009 while its carbon capture projects have been ongoing for years. All other oil companies are under the same pressures to diversify their holdings, which nearly all of them are doing to some degree. While oil development will remain their mainstay for decades to come, the investments in clean energy are prudent.
As for algae, all it needs is a little sun, water and carbon dioxide.
But while the ingredients to make algae may be simple, it is still an open question as to whether current pilot facilities can attract private investors that will enable the industry to gear up. Beyond the financial, environmental worries persist. It involves taking carbon emissions from power plants to grow the algae before converting it to something that would run cars, trucks and airplanes. Critics maintain that the recycling of carbon would then lead to the use of more coal.
Algae can be converted into liquid hydrocarbons a couple different ways: One is to use sugar to feed the algae and the second is through photosynthesis.
Critics maintain that the recycling of carbon lends credence to the burning of fossil fuels and in the end, more carbon is emitted than is captured. The journal of Environmental Science and Technology, furthermore, has reviewed the life cycle of algae compared to other bio-fuels such as corn and switch-grass. It concluded that using conventional crops to create fuels will result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less water consumption than if algae is used to do the same thing.
The study also says that most of the carbon that is getting captured is coming from places other than power plants and oil refineries. That’s because there is not yet an effective way to bottle such releases from industrial sources.
Those findings, however, have been refuted by the Algae Biomass Organization, which says that researchers have used outdated data that is tied to older production methods to draw their conclusions. To that end, the industry, which has kept its production processes proprietary, is now saying that it may be willing to share its newest information so that such students can better understand today’s technologies.
“If it cost you more energy to make it, then what is the point,” says Nick Donowitz, former director of corporate development for Heliae. “Based on the work we’ve done, we are charging on a path toward an energy neutral or energy positive system.”
Algae still has a long way to go and it won’t likely ever become a panacea. But it is a quiver in the energy arsenal that could potentially replace some crude oil use, resulting in fewer emissions and better national energy security. As to whether Exxon and the other oils will see profits from it remain to be seen. But they have the cash on hand to take the risks, which if nothing else will prove to be good for their public relations.