Algae biofuels score $10m from BP, but Exxon wins at $600m

BP throws tiny $10m toward algae biofuels, Exxon’s at $600m BP recently announced an investment of $10 million in a new initiative to develop sugar to biodiesal methodologies. Essentially that means figuring out a way to convert sugar into fuel efficiently using microbial organisms like algae.

It’s good to hear that ranked by sales dollars, the third largest petroleum refining company in the world, BP, is making some movements toward sustainability. When it comes to algae though, Exxon has taken a strong lead with its investment of $600 million to develop hydrocarbons using algae processing.

BP makes some claims in its press release that overall the company has invested over $1.5 billion in biofuels research but doesn’t provide any breakout of where that money went. Considering the relative profitability of petroleum refining companies despite the economic downturn there is significant public interest to see these companies word toward an improvement of the worldwide energy infrastructure.

In this $10 million investment, BP has entered a Joint Development Agreement (JDA) with Martek Biosciences Corporation which is more widely known for its development of a vegetarian omega-3 fatty acid. The two companies will work toward establishing a “. . . proof of concept for large-scale, cost effective microbial biodiesel production through fermentation.”

The fermentation method could reduce emissions by up to 90% when compared to traditional fossil fuels. Access to the raw materials necessary for the process to work is readily available from sugar cane and other plant biomass. It would also provide some insulation against the price fluctuations of vegetable oil.

Sugar to biodiesal sounds like a great thing with plenty of ability to source raw materials and scale production to need, but the part that’s missing is any sort of timeline. What sorts of milestones is BP expecting to achieve, or is this just another example of greenwashing to appease the masses?