The Myth of Algae Biofuels

In 2017, ExxonMobil announced an intriguing energy innovation: In partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics, it had used CRISPR gene-editing technology to produce a strain of algae that ExxonMobil claimed could pave the way toward a sustainable future and “reduce the risk of climate change.” Ever since then, the company has used numerous social media platforms — including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — to share its “Miniature Science” video campaign, promoting the idea that algae could “fuel the trucks, ships and planes of tomorrow.”

Algae biofuels, a form of renewable energy that converts sea-growing algae into liquid fuel, have been intensely studied since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Since then, most fossil fuel companies have pursued algae biofuel research ventures, fiddling with production processes to make these sea vegetables a viable alternative energy. In recent years, however, many of these companies have abandoned their algae biofuel partnerships and projects due to the biological and economic limitations of this work. ExxonMobil remains largely alone in maintaining that a clean energy future powered by algae biofuels is just around the corner. 

However, this is the same company that, not too long ago, was actively discrediting legitimate climate science. Since the 1960s, ExxonMobil has known from its in-house climate scientists and climate modeling program that climate change is human-caused and driven by fossil fuel use. It subsequently conducted one of the “most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign[s]” ever, on par with the tobacco industry’s campaign to discredit links between smoking and lung cancer. Considering this problematic history of obfuscating climate science, combined with the disappointing outcomes of algae biofuel research, ExxonMobil’s efforts to promote algae biofuels as a climate solution seem disingenuous — more of a public relations strategy than a serious effort to mitigate climate change.

The Lost Promise of Algae Biofuel Innovation

Many industry projections for algae biofuels remain highly optimistic. The algae company Algatech, for instance, states that algae biofuels are “100 percent beneficial to the people and the planet.” This inflated enthusiasm has been prevalent since the early days of algae research.

Beginning with the launch of the U.S.-funded Aquatic Species Program in the 1970s, millions of dollars in public and private funds have been directed toward algae research. The Department of Energy has been a major driver of algae research since 2007, with significant funding also coming from the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The algae that has received the most attention is known as “microalgae” — mostly single-celled photosynthetic organisms that live on the water’s surface. Microalgae are one of the most abundant and important organisms on the planet. Numbering some 70,000 species, microalgae play an outsize role in balancing marine ecosystems and regulating global nutrient cycles

To transform these tiny plants into fuel, researchers typically grow microalgae in large, open ponds or in enclosed photobioreactors, although at scale they would likely need to be grown in the open air. Scientists harvest the algae, break down the plants’ cell walls using a chemical solvent, and then extract their inner lipids, proteins, and carbs, which undergo a final processing step that turns them into biofuel. Most research funding has been shuttled into improving these processes, minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs with the aim of making large-scale algae production commercially viable.

ExxonMobil claimed to have made a big step toward this goal in 2017. Working with biotech company Synthetic Genomics — which ExxonMobil helped to found in 2009 — ExxonMobil announced it had created a genetically modified strain of microalgae that could produce double the lipids without significantly inhibiting growth. This innovation could theoretically allow the company to afford an enormous scale-up of its biofuel production. In fact, ExxonMobil was confident enough in its breakthrough that it claimed gene editing could allow the production of a startling 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day by 2025.

Yet while ExxonMobil celebrates these supposed breakthroughs in genetic engineering, other energy companies have long since given up on algae biofuels. By 2012, Shell had ended its algae biofuel research and development program, news had dried up of BP’s $10 million deal with bioscience firm Martek, and Chevron’s five-year partnership with the government-funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory had produced no significant breakthroughs. By early 2018, Chevron’s website had gone from promising that algae biofuel development was “still in the research stage” to openly admitting its work was unsuccessful. Algae companies around the world have also announced intentions to “shift” or diversify their research aims, usually to producing algae for food or nutritional supplements. For example, Algenol shifted to carbon capture and fresh water creation in 2015, and Chevron-backed Solazyme announced in 2016 that it would discontinue its biofuels program altogether.

It seems that only ExxonMobil retains the dizzied excitement over algae biofuels of decades past. Although the company has not promoted many specific breakthroughs in its algae biofuel research since 2017, ExxonMobil’s social media presence suggests continued optimism for the future of this renewable energy.

“If you look on ExxonMobil’s Facebook or Instagram, you’d think that algae is all they’re thinking about all the time,” Zoya Teirstein, a reporter for Grist, told the HPR. Yet according to Teirstein, the company seems uneager to actually communicate this work to the mainstream media: “When you call their offices there’s no algae unit, there’s no gaggle of scientists working on this — their major product is still oil.” When Teirstein called the company, none of the three representatives she spoke with had any idea what she was referring to when she asked about algae biofuels. 

The Costs of Continued Investment

Despite industry optimism, decades of research seem to have converged upon a disappointing reality: The economic and biological limitations of algae make it an unrealistic fuel alternative for the future. It requires too much fertilizer, too much water, and too much energy to produce at scale. To grow enough algae to meet 5 percent of the U.S. transportation sector’s energy demand would require exorbitant fertilizer inputs of up to 107 percent of the country’s nitrogen use and half of its phosphorous. And the industrial processes needed to actually convert microalgae into fuel could actually cause a net energy loss: Algae could take up to 53 percent more energy to produce than it would offer as a biofuel. 

With these considerations in mind, think tanks and research bodies around the world are advising governments against intensifying algae biofuel research, especially when funding could compete with more promising research into renewables like solar and wind. EnAlgae, an EU-funded coalition of 19 research bodies, concluded in 2015 that it was “highly unlikely” that microalgae would play a large role in Europe’s sustainable energy future. Similarly, in 2017, the International Energy Agency reiterated that algae was “not foreseen to be economically viable in the near to intermediate term.” 

Yet as these predictions proliferate, ExxonMobil remains convinced that — with the help of some genetically engineered traits — algae production can be made profitable at scale, overcoming the biological limitations that have frustrated previous efforts. These genetic modifications introduce new reasons for caution: specifically, the troubling possibility that genetically engineered algae strains could easily escape into the environment. At present, many researchers grow their algae in indoor enclosures, but to scale them up would likely require growing algae in open-air systems, where the potential for escape increases exponentially.

“You only need one bird to get it on its feet and fly off,” explained Kevin Flynn, a top algae researcher at Swansea University, in an interview with the HPR. That single bird could take algae wherever it landed, accidentally helping to establish algae colonies potentially hundreds of miles from the original site. Flynn’s research finds that once in nature, it would be alarmingly easy for microalgae to spread “around the planet,” where it could overwhelm native species, particularly if the algae had specially-engineered traits to help them outcompete other wildlife. “The spread of genetically modified microalgae … would be effectively impossible to halt,” Flynn warned in a 2012 study.

Scientists can only guess how genetically engineered algae would behave in nature, but many experts have warned of disastrous consequences. Harmful algae blooms could cause “massive fish kills, and death to marine birds and mammals as well as illness or even death to humans,” or create oxygen-depleted oceanic dead zones, where most life simply cannot exist. Horizontal gene transfer, whereby microalgae transfer genes asexually and take up “naked DNA” in the environment, poses another concern. By this process, genetically engineered algae could confer their own DNA to wild algae. Because these genes are broadly growth-enhancing, they could proliferate rapidly, drastically increasing the risk of harmful algae blooms.

Most researchers do not question whether microalgae would find its way into the wild; rather, they operate under the assumption that it would escape. There is a chance that international contamination could be benign, but according to Flynn, there is an equally likely —  if not higher — chance that it could devastate ecosystems. He compares an algae escape scenario to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, only with algae’s ability to propagate rapidly, “this could be much, much worse.” Unlike a relatively localized oil spill, if a dangerous algae species were released into the wild, even well-funded, long-term cleanup efforts could prove futile.

A Shift Toward Real Climate Solutions

Inefficient biology, economics, and ecological hazards undermine ExxonMobil’s insistence that commercially viable algae biofuels are just over the horizon. Even ExxonMobil’s former CEO Rex Tillerson has acknowledged that a future powered by algae biofuels is not close at hand, saying in 2013 that it could take 25 years to develop a commercially viable product. The myth of this future promise is perhaps algae biofuels’ most pernicious feature: They siphon attention and resources away from more realistic climate solutions.

“[Algae biofuels] distract us from more promising resources like solar and wind,” Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told the HPR. For Perls, each dollar invested in algae biofuel research represents funding that could have helped install more promising solar or wind infrastructure.

However, even if algae biofuels are a “dead end and a dangerous distraction” in terms of climate solutions, they have immense value as a marketing tool. ExxonMobil’s algae biofuel ad campaign paints it as a “green” company, creating the outward impression that environmentalism is one of its core concerns. This green veneer helps diminish public pressure to act more aggressively on climate change. It “keeps people stringing along, thinking we’re almost there,” Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch, told the HPR. If they believe there is a meaningful push for more algae biofuel research, and that full-scale deployment is just around the corner, people may be more complacent about demanding immediate change in companies’ practices and government policy.

Furthermore, ExxonMobil’s decades-long history of sowing climate misinformation raises serious questions about its motivations in promoting algae biofuels as a climate solution. ExxonMobil stands to gain from climate delayism — the longer the company can impede a transition to renewable energies, the longer it can continue to profit off of an economy dependent on fossil fuels. As climate skepticism becomes less common, climate distraction — focusing on unrealistic and not-yet-deployable green technology — may work in similar ways, breeding a comparable complacency around climate action.

Meanwhile, some of the language used by algae biofuel proponents raises the suspicion that even if algae entrepreneurs are serious about creating a large-scale renewable fuel source, they are less interested in addressing the climate crisis than they are in profiting from it. The Algae Biomass Organization, for example, claims that “a new crop of microalgae technologies can [convert] CO2 into valuable commodities for trillion dollar industries, thus turning a problem … into an opportunity – an ongoing revenue stream.”

In order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius by mid-century, as called for in the Paris Agreement, and avoid the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has implored countries to radically decarbonize the global economy by 2030 and completely decarbonize by 2050. To reach these goals will require net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions every year. Instead of promoting false optimism about algae biofuels, Biofuelwatch calls for an end to all federally-funded research in this area and for redirecting resources toward solutions that can more meaningfully advance a low-carbon energy future. 

Looking to the future, it seems that ExxonMobil could better support global climate goals by allocating some of its $285 billion net worth toward already-proven technologies and renewable energy infrastructure, as opposed to continuing its algae biofuels projects. Some exhort the company to go even further in order to compensate for its historical contribution to climate inaction. As Friends of the Earth’s Senior Fossil Fuels Program Manager Nicole Ghio told the HPR, “If Exxon wants to be a climate leader, [it] can get out of fossils altogether, clean up the toxic legacy at [its] facilities, and pay reparations to the communities whose health and safety has been compromised in the name of Exxon profits.” Barring such radical action, Ghio and her colleagues remain unimpressed with ExxonMobil’s rhetoric about climate solutions; it would take momentous change — not another algae innovation — to convince them that ExxonMobil is more than a fox in the henhouse. For now, it looks to them that the company is only ostensibly focusing on research into renewables, while it projects continuing fossil fuel growth detrimental to the wellbeing of the planet for years and years into the future. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Mykola Swarnick

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