Much of the discourse in the industrial gases business focuses on hydrogen and LNG as potentially alternative fuels of the future, and rightly so. But what of the biofuels?

The need for energy diversification is well established – fossil fuels are depleting and the quest is on for the array of alternative energy sources that will comprise our future.

Biomass and biofuels represent one such route, and steady progress has been made in the development of the first and second generation biofuels that may begin life as either wheat, fruit pulp or even plant stems. Augmenting this could be a so-called ‘next generation’ biofuel derived from algae.

Exxon Mobil Corporation has joined forces with a leading biotechnology research company to realise the potential of developing this next generation biofuel from photosynthetic algae. The company, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas firm, announced its pioneering alliance with Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) in July 2009 and alluded to the prospects that exist as far as algae is concerned.

“This investment comes after several years of planning and study and is an important addition to ExxonMobil’s ongoing efforts to advance breakthrough technologies to help meet the world’s energy challenges,” explained Dr. Emil Jacobs, Vice-President of Research and Development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

“Meeting the world’s growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources. We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future if our efforts result in an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel.”

How does it work?
Using algae almost as a feedstock is a long-term investment plan and not a quick fix to ever-immediate energy concerns or challenges, as evidenced by the more than $600m that ExxonMobil expects to invest if certain milestones are successfully met.

Unlike some first or second generation biofuels, harvesting algae wouldn’t be seasonal; it would be a continuous process that takes place throughout the year and ultimately provides a plentiful, if not prolific, source of energy.

Algae requires a combination of sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and other nutrients to grow, with comparably large production quantities per acre of land, therefore utilising less land and energy per volume of biofuel produced as an end product. Further still, fresh water is not a necessity – algae can grow in salt water or even treated waste water.

Once the algae is successfully produced, the next step is to harvest the bio-oil, before this bio-oil is then the subject of process chemistry and engineering in a refinery setting. From there, the end product is distributed to the pump and ready for fuelling.

What makes the argument for algae-derived biofuel so compelling is the many advantages that this fuel source appears to afford.

With some statistics suggesting that global energy demand is set to rise significantly in the next two decades (ExxonMobil expects global energy demand in 2030 to be around 35% higher than in 2005), diversification of sources and supply will be crucial. It’s clear that all available avenues of resource will need to be explored and utilised where possible.

What will also be important is how these new sources are adopted - and how simple the transition to new energy resources is. It would be a strategic advantage to develop fuels that can be integrated within the current supply systems and fuelling infrastructures; this is where algae-derived biofuel appears to be harbouring key advantages of its own.

In addition to the apparent prolific production nature of algae, bio-oils derived from this source can be processed in existing refineries to manufacture biofuel that meets the same specifications and compatibility of today’s existing transportation fuels and infrastructure. Such a combination might just provide us with a next generation biofuel that offers renewable harvesting and production, less land and energy used per volume of fuel produced, and ease of accessibility too.

As a further benefit, algae feed on carbon dioxide and could therefore help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“After considerable study, we have determined that the potential advantages and benefits of biofuel from algae could be significant. Among other advantages, readily available sunlight and carbon dioxide used to grow the photosynthetic algae could provide greenhouse gas mitigation benefits,” said Dr. Jacobs [July 2009].

A role for the gases community?
What’s also interesting is an observation from an industrial gas mindset. With algae consuming rather than emitting carbon dioxide, perhaps a role will exist for the industrial gas community in the future?

ExxonMobil recognises that algae would require a great deal of carbon dioxide for commercial production and notes that large-scale algae production sites, for example, could use the carbon dioxide generated by nearby power plants or manufacturing facilities. A production site, the company points out, could effectively act as its own carbon capture and conversion project – in addition to its primary goal of producing the biofuel product.

Where carbon dioxide supply is concerned, surely a role or question mark exists for those in the industrial gases business?

The ExxonMobil-SGI alliance is investigating and developing the concept of large-scale production and commercialisation of algae-derived biofuel, which includes the challenge of ‘determining how to supply the large amounts of carbon dioxide needed to grow algae...’

A further observation concerns the future of algae-based biofuels. The alliance clearly believes a challenge exists with regard to carbon dioxide supply, but if this alternative energy source really takes off in the years to come, perhaps possibilities will be created for the gases business.

Could the gauntlet be firmly laid down for the industrial gas and equipment community to guarantee the supply of the large volumes of carbon dioxide required for algae production, via carbon capture or otherwise?

Further still, one of ExxonMobil’s primary roles in the alliance is in ‘determining which type of production systems to utilise to grow algae’. Could there be a role to play in the development of production systems and equipments and any other aspects of the biofuel manufacturing chain?

Future challenges
A number of challenges lay ahead for the development of algae-derived biofuel, naturally. The same could be said for the development of first and second generation biofuels, and of course the much discussed concept of a hydrogen economy.

“The real challenge to creating a viable next generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes which will require significant advances in both science and engineering,” Dr. J. Craig Venter, Founder and CEO of SGI, said in a 2009 statement.

Exactly twelve months later and significant progress had already been made. July 2010 saw the alliance announce the opening of a new greenhouse facility to enable the next level of research and testing in its algae biofuels programme. The new facility, opened at the SGI headquarters in La Jolla, California, moves the project from a laboratory setting to an environment that better reflects the ‘real-world’ conditions for algae production.

SGI and ExxonMobil researchers are using the facility to test whether large-scale quantities of affordable fuel can be produced from algae, examining different growth systems such as open ponds and closed photobioreactors.

Researchers will evaluate different types of algae, including both natural and engineered strains, and will also conduct research into other aspects of the production process such as the harvesting and bio-oil recovery phases.

Dr. Jacobs said in a statement in July 2010, “This is an important day in the early stages of our development programme as we test the hypothesis that algae biofuels could become commercially viable and make a meaningful contribution to meeting future energy demand.”

What next? Well, the next major milestone for the alliance and its project is expected in mid 2011, with the opening of an outdoor test facility. Until then, and indeed beyond, the research and development continues into this innovative and potentially groundbreaking next generation biofuel.

At gasworld we’re left pondering, what could this project mean for the industrial gases business?