HOUSTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp and Synthetic Genomics Inc said on Monday they had found a way to more than double the amount of lipids produced by algae in a lab, moving a potential alternative to fossil fuels closer to commercial viability.
The development comes as Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer, fights accusations by environmentalists and others that it misled investors and the public for years about the risks of climate change from fossil fuels.
In the past decade, Exxon has boosted investment in fuel cells, biodiesel, algae and other alternative energy technologies, in collaboration with private partners. The company also has invested in television advertisements to tout its renewable energy investments, including during last summer’s Olympic Games.
“Algae can be a viable, renewable source for volumes of oil at scale,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s vice president for research and development.
“We like algae because it’s fast-growing, doesn’t compete for food and water and can grow in all sorts of climates and brackish water.”
Exxon and Synthetic cautioned that they are far from being able to run the process at commercial scale.
The oil company’s ultimate goal is to make an oil from algae that can be processed by existing refineries, though that goal remains elusive.
Exxon began working with California-based Synthetic on algae research in 2009. The lab work is conducted at Synthetic facilities and funded by Exxon, which declined to disclose its financial investment.
Scientists studied the way that algae cells partition carbon - typically from carbon dioxide - and produce lipids, a kind of hydrocarbon. Algae converts carbon dioxide into lipids much in the same way the human body converts sugar into fat.
The scientists were able to genetically modify algae to convert 40 percent of CO2 into lipids, up from a prior 15 percent.
“This was not an overnight breakthrough. This was a lot of sweat and toil,” said Craig Venter, chairman of Synthetic Genomics.
Up next, scientists will need to unlock how to speed up the process and strengthen the algae cells.
“This just gives us hope and optimism that we’re on the right track,” said Swarup.
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Andrea Ricci