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December 11, 2007 at 12:21 PM

Royal Dutch Shell will test algae

For oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, the answer to the world’s energy troubles may lurk in the depths of a Hawaiian pond.

The Anglo-Dutch energy company said Tuesday it is building a pilot plant in Hawaii to grow marine algae for their vegetable oil — a prime potential source of biodiesel. Construction of the plant will begin immediately, and the company is mulling launching a simultaneous project to test algae production at a commercial scale, company officials said in a conference call with reporters. The deal is part of a venture with Hawaii-based HR Biopetroleum, with Shell taking the lead.

Some say algae is the answer to biofuels’ main obstacle: they need a lot of land to make a meaningful dent in demand for fossil fuels. Algae can double their mass several times a day, says Shell, and could produce up to 15 times more oil per hectare than land-based crops such as rapeseed and soybean. They can also be grown in seawater, f rather than on valuable land that could be used to produce food. Shell’s batch will be grown in open-air ponds, from strains indigenous to Hawaii or approved by the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Skeptics say the technology is costly, and nobody has yet figured out how to economically grow algae. But Shell and its partners think they can pull that feat off.

“We are quite confident of achieving commercially viable production rates,” said Mark Huntley, Chief Science Officer for HR Biopetroleum.

The oil industry has been somewhat ambivalent about biofuels. Oil executives oppose pending legislation that would increase the mandate for ethanol in the U.S., and don’t seem eager to jump into the production of currently available biofuels or their feedstock. Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson said earlier this year that a technological leap would be necessary before the biofuels business became attractive to the world’s largest publicly traded oil company.

But the algae venture furthers Shell’s foray into what the industry calls “second-generation” biofuels. The company is already funding Iogen, a Canadian firm that seeks to build a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant. Other companies — ConocoPhillips, Chevron and BP — are funding research.

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