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Editorial comment

As I write this Comment, the world is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic lunar landing and man’s first tentative steps on the surface of the moon. This enormous achievement was the culmination of countless hours of hard work, intellectual, technological and practical challenge and ultimately vast expenditure.


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As I write this Comment, the world is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic lunar landing and man’s first tentative steps on the surface of the moon. This enormous achievement was the culmination of countless hours of hard work, intellectual, technological and practical challenge and ultimately vast expenditure. Even today, it is a testament to the magnitude of the achievement that the world still marvels at its attainment. When President Robert Kennedy first announced, in May 1961, the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade, it seemed to most an impossibility. However, just eight years later on 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did indeed fulfil Kennedy’s ambition albeit six years after the President’s untimely death.

On 8th July 2009, leaders at the G8 Summit in Italy set the world a new and perhaps equally daunting challenge, though in this instance strictly earth bound, in committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Simultaneously, the group of leaders also resolved to maintain global temperature rises at no more than 2 °C above preindustrial levels (the planet is currently 0.8% above the preindustrial level). Whilst the 80% emission cuts only apply to developed countries, developing nations will actively be encouraged to make additional cuts with an overall objective of reducing worldwide greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2050. Critics, who include the United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-moon, argue that 50% is hopelessly inadequate. However, with developing industrial nations such as India and China dragging their heels and looking for greater concessions, a 50% reduction in this timeframe looks distinctly ambitious. The problem for governments is that as with oil, the era of easy emission cuts is quickly coming to an end. Once the simple options have been undertaken, future reductions will have to come from drastic cuts in the power, heavy industrial and transport sectors, key areas that for governments mean the pain of considerable expense.

Help, however, would appear to be at hand from a perhaps unlikely quarter. The last seven days has also seen the announcement by ExxonMobil and Craig Venter, the pioneer of human genome research, that they have established a partnership to research the possibility of large scale biofuels production from algae. Unlikely because ExxonMobil has long appeared sceptical of the ability of biofuels to provide a long term alternative to hydrocarbon derived fuels. Indeed, historically the company has lagged behind others such as Shell and BP in terms of investments in renewable energy. However, 2009 has seen all this change with both Shell and BP apparently suspending or at best downgrading their forays into alternative energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) in favour of a return to their core hydrocarbon based businesses.

For ExxonMobil the appeal of algae derived biofuel is its close resemblance in terms of molecular structure to traditional petroleum products that can be processed in existing refineries, transported in existing pipelines and sold from existing service stations. In addition to this vital infrastructural compatibility, algae can be grown utilising land and water unsuitable for plant or food production unlike other biofuel feedstocks that can have a detrimental effect on food production capacity. Growing algae is also considerably more efficient than other biofuels sources in terms of yield per acre of production. Whilst palm oil can yield 650 gal. per acre, sugar cane 450 gal. and corn 250 gal., algae has the potential to yield 2000 gal. per acre at the very least. Add to this the fact that algae actually consumes CO2 via natural photosynthesis thereby mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and that it can be used to manufacture the full range of fuels including gasoline and diesel but most importantly jet fuel, and it is understandable why ExxonMobil is preparing to invest more than US$1 billion over the next decade, providing research, still in its infancy, proceeds according to plan. Just as the lunar landings 40 years ago stretched the bounds of possibility to the very limits, the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is doing the same today. In the end intellect, technology and investment will provide the solution and its achievement will be no less momentous.


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