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ExxonMobil and Venter Team Up to Develop Algal Biofuels

The top oil company puts $600 million into producing liquid fuels from algae bred in water

1 min read

At the beginning of 2007, at a conference in La Jolla, Calif., dedicated to biotechnology and biofuels, I was privileged to hear a banquet address by C. Craig Venter, the biotechnologist who cracked the human genome, beating the U.S. government. He made, I felt, a highly schizoid impression: on the one hand, charismatic, all-encompassing, omniscient; on the other . . . megalomaniacal mad scientist.

Perhaps ExxonMobil executives have been mulling over similar impressions, as they contemplate the potential of biofuels and biotechnology. But this week, as  the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing approaches, the company announced it is partnering with Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to develop liquid fuels from bioengineered algae. The $600 million that ExxonMobil is investing may be but a pittance for a company that earned $45 billion last year, but if Venter turns out to be of sound mind and delivers on his promises, this may someday be seen as another huge leap for humankind.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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