Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest and richest publicly traded oil company, is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels. Exxon is joining Synthetic Genomics Inc., a biotechnology company founded by the genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, to research and develop next-generation biofuels from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum. 

The partnership will last five to six years and will involve the creation of a new test facility in San Diego to study algae-growing method and oil extraction techniques. Exxon’s investment includes $300 million for in-house studies and potentially more than $300 million to Synthetic Genomics to scale up the technology for commercial production if research and development milestones are successfully met.

The partnership admits that it faces many obstacles, such as type of algae to use, the algae-growing environment, and the scale required for commercial use, to achieve this commercial production goal. Even in light of these challenges, algae holds many potential advantages over other sources of biofuels. One advantage is that algae grows in areas not suited for food crops, using pools of brackish water or even farming them in seawater.   Additionally, algae needs carbon dioxide to grow, a benefit that could be used to help cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.