Oil and gas company ExxonMobil, whose chief executive Rex Tillerson called the idea of ethanol as a biofuel "moonshine" in 2007, last week announced a US$600-million research alliance to develop biofuels from photosynthetic algae.

Green power: these tubes of algae are geared up to produce biofuel. Credit: S. SHAVER/UPI PHOTO/NEWSCOM

The multi-year project sees Exxon team up with Synthetic Genomics, the biotechnology company in La Jolla, California, co-founded by Craig Venter, which numbers another oil and gas giant, BP, among its investors.

Synthetic Genomics will receive $300 million — more, if deemed successful — to develop high-yielding algal strains and their large-scale cultivation. Exxon is spending an equal sum internally on engineering and manufacturing expertise to support the research.