As a professional futurist, I spend a great deal of time reading the back sections of newspapers looking for small trends which could grow larger in the future. Yesterday, I happened across two articles suggesting that algae—for the production of both oil and ethanol—may have a promising future.
First, in an item that should have attracted more attention, Exxon announced that it would be partnering with Craig Venter and his new company Synthetic Genomics in a $600 million R&D effort to develop genetically modified strains of algae that can not only suck up excess carbon dioxide but secrete oil.
If the two companies can pull off this feat—and I’ll be the first to admit that significant technological challenges remain—they can make money two ways. First, they could sell the oil to refineries. Second, in the likely event the federal government imposes some sort of regulation on CO2, they can benefit by pulling the greenhouse gas out of the environment.
The second item was equally intriguing. Dow announced its was partnering with Algenol Biofuels on the creation of a new demonstration plant to efficiently produce ethanol from algae. If successful, the ethanol will be used by Dow to make plastics.
As I am fond of saying, the future is already here … it just isn’t evenly distributed. In perhaps five to ten years time, Algae’s potential to produce oil and ethanol could explode as fast as scum can sprout on a pond during a hot summer day.
From an unlearning perspective, the news is important because it suggests that Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson may be slowly unlearning that oil can only be pumped from the ground. You may recall that a few years back, Tillerson dismissed the future of biofuels by quipping that he expected to be driven to his funeral in a hearse using gasoline or diesel. It would, indeed, be ironic if Mr. Tillerson — when he passes from this earth — is driven to his final resting spot in an algae-powered hearse.