San Diego Algae Biofuels Industry Gains Steam With R&D Consortium

1/21/09Follow @bvbigelow

The San Diego region is undertaking a broad initiative to accelerate development of algae-to-biofuels technology by establishing a new organization, the San Diego Center for Algae-based Biofuels, or SD-CAB. The center is being organized by a consortium of academic and industry researchers and represents a regional effort to make sustainable algae-based biofuel production a reality in the next 5 to 10 years, says Steve Kay, dean of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego.

Kay says the center is currently virtual, with initial funding for SD-CAB coming from what he described as “a corporate affiliates program.” He didn’t elaborate, but such an effort might attract financial support, for example,from a big oil company. In any case, I recently counted at least nine companies in the San Diego area that are working to develop algae-based substitutes for conventional petroleum products. Most of them are early-stage startups, but the list includes SAIC (NYSE: SAI) and privately held General Atomics. Both are major government contractors accustomed to managing collaborative research programs, and both recently got grants from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency to develop technologies that use algae to make jet fuel.

The collaborative effort behind the new center emerged from a non-profit membership organization called Cleantech San Diego, which was formed in late 2007 by the city of San Diego and local economic development groups.

Lisa Bicker, Cleantech San Diego’s CEO, told me last week she helped organize an initial meeting of scientists and industry officials last July—just to talk about who’s doing what in algae biofuels research. “It was very clear to some of us in the room that there was just a tremendous amount of work going on here,” Bicker says.

Algae research is still at a relatively early stage, says Tony Haymet, director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and vice chairman of Cleantech San Diego’s board. But Haymet says he’s encouraged by San Diego’s “critical mass of companies, General Atomics included.” One of the major questions for the center to explore, Haymet says, is whether algae-to-biofuels technology is better suited for “distributed, small-scale production, or whether it’s going to be a big industrial refining operation like you see in the Gulf of Mexico.”

UCSD’s Kay says the primary goal of SD-CAB is to create a national facility to develop the kind of innovative solutions needed to make algae biofuels production commercially viable. Cost estimates for producing a barrel of algae-based “green crude” currently vary from $80 to $500 “depending on which type of algae you grow at what particular site and at what time of year,” Kay said.

“The key element for the center is that we happen to have some of the leading scientists who are contributing to the understanding of how algae can be used to make biofuels,” Kay told me. Aside from Kay, that list includes Stephen Mayfield, a cell biologist and associate dean at The Scripps Research Institute, and Greg Mitchell, a biologist who, like Haymet, is at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Haymet says one other advantage he sees in the collaborative effort is that it won’t require billions of dollars in funding like a superconducting supercollider. “There’s just a lot of entrepreneurs and scientists involved.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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