ExxonMobil explores biofuel extraction from agricultural waste

Oil powerhouse ExxonMobil will explore new ways of producing biofuel from agricultural waste, after agreeing a partnership with biodiesel producers Renewable Energy Group (REG).

REG has developed a patented technology that converts sugars to biofuel in a fermenting process that uses similar techniques to producing ethanol. The new research project will see Exxon and REG try and adapt this process to work on sugars from non-food sources, such as agricultural waste.

ExxonMobil’s vice president of research and development Vijay Swarup said: “This research is just one way ExxonMobil is working to identify potential breakthrough technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy supplies and realize other environmental benefits.

“The science is extremely complex, but we hope to identify new affordable and reliable supplies of energy for the world that do not have a major impact on food supplies.”

Through the research, the two companies will be addressing the challenge of how to ferment real-world renewable cellulosic sugars, which contain multiple types of sugars, including glucose and xylose, but also impurities that can inhibit fermentation.

REG’s Life Sciences vice president Eric Bowen said: “We look forward to this collaboration with ExxonMobil to advance our proprietary cellulosic sugar fermentation technology and capitalise on the combined power of cellulosic sugars and microbial fermentation to revolutionise the production of ultra-low carbon, cleaner burning advanced biofuels.”

Energy future

The news comes in the same week that ExxonMobil released its 2016 edition of the Outlook for Energy.

The outlook states that the share of the world’s electricity generated by coal is expected to fall to about 30% by 2040 from the 40% level established in 2014.

It also projects that global energy-related carbon emissions will peak around 2030 before declining thereafter. Emissions from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries will fall by around 20% by 2040.

William Colton, vice president of ExxonMobil’s Corporate Strategic Planning, which develops the Outlook for Energy, said: “For many years the outlook has taken into account policies established to reduce energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

“The climate accord reached at the recent COP 21 conference in Paris set many new goals, and while many related policies are still emerging, the outlook continues to anticipate that such policies will increase the cost of carbon dioxide emissions over time.”

Despite this seemingly positive prediction the outlook does note that an expected population increase of around 2 billion people will increase global energy demand by 25% meaning that fossil fuels will be necessary, especially in emerging countries.

New age oils

The outlook’s projections seem to fall in line with the IEA’s renewable outlook – a report which has been branded ‘irresponsible’ and ‘misleading’ in the past.

Six of Europe’s largest oil and gas companies have written to the UN asking for the establishment of an international carbon price but Exxon and Chevron declined to join the initiative, saying they were well able to express their views on their own.

Carbon Tracker has previously warned of a perfect storm of climate movements, which could see fossil fuel companies waste more than $2trn by pursuing projects in a potential world where there is no need for coal mines and oil prices have peaked.

Matt Mace

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