By Shigeru Sato and Yuji Okada
April 20 (Bloomberg) — As Japan’s rice fields turn fallow and its farming communities decline, a new army of workers is preparing to make the countryside fertile again. This time the crop is motor fuel and the laborers are microscopic algae.
At least 75 developers globally are studying algae, which has the potential to generate more energy per hectare than any other crop used for making fuel, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The technology has attracted the U.S. Department of Energy and big oil including Exxon Mobil Corp., which plans to spend as much as $600 million on research over five years.
Japan abandoned a $132 million algae project in the 1990s, when oil prices dropped below $10 a barrel and climate change took a back seat to reviving the economy in what became known as “the Lost Decade.” Now companies including Toyota Motor Corp. and refiner Idemitsu Kosan Co. may join a study into the microorganisms that can turn waste water into oil, scrub carbon dioxide out of the air and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.