Virtual Initiative Cultivating Algae Industry Bloom in San Diego

2/12/09Follow @bvbigelow

One of the distinguishing characteristics about algae is that it grows fast, and it seems that may be true as well for the algae biomass industry in San Diego.

After reporting last month about a push to establish a multimillion-dollar hub for algae-based biofuels research in San Diego, I learned of a related effort with a broader focus that is known simply as “the regional algae initiative.”

While the initiative includes San Diego’s growing mini-cluster of algae-based biofuels startups, project manager Rick Halperin told me yesterday the concept extends beyond biofuels to all things algal. Halperin says the effort also plans to rely on a recent macro-economic study on “mega-region” economic development that identifies ways in which groups in San Diego and Imperial Counties can collaborate.

Imperial County, which borders Mexico between San Diego County and Arizona, consists of 4,597 square miles of mostly parched terrain. Agriculture has traditionally dominated the Imperial Valley’s economy, but close to 20 percent of the county’s 145,000 residents live near poverty and the December unemployment rate of 22.6 percent is likely the highest in California. Yet Halperin and others see the sun-baked county, which is increasingly being viewed as a paradise for renewable energy, as an ideal hotbed for growing algae in all its multipurpose forms.

“The idea for a regional algae initiative is relatively virtual,” Halperin told me. The initiative is not intended to become a formal entity, or as Halperin put it, “A Roman slave ship where everybody has to grab an oar and pull in the same direction.”

Rather, the initiative is intended to encourage collaboration, for example, by developing and sharing information on sources of government grants and other public funding for algae-based projects that span the continuum from laboratory to construction of large-scale plants. “We’re trying to be very cross-disciplinary in our approach to all this,” Halperin says. “The regional algae initiative is part cheerleading and part figuring out what needs to get done and what needs to get cleared out of our path.”

Apart from using algae to produce biofuels, Halperin says the potential uses for algae are legion. New technologies are being developed in San Diego that use algae to produce methane gas for electric power plants—and as algal pond filters capable of absorbing carbon dioxide emissions from the same power plants. New technologies that use algae to process and cleanse sewage wastewater also could prove helpful to the City of San Diego, which is currently operating its wastewater treatment plant under an EPA waiver.

“The more you can combine your industry initiatives with solutions that address some other problems, the better your chance of getting funding,” Halperin says.

Groups supporting the intiative include San Diego startups like Sapphire Energy that are focused on developing algae-based technologies, government contractors, as well as industry groups like Cleantech San Diego, and economic development organizations in San Diego and Imperial Valley. Halperin says financial support from Bank of America’s “sustainability initiative” launched the effort last year. Halperin, a San Diego consultant who has worked for the Nature Conservancy, American Wind Energy Association and Renewable Energy Institute was hired as project manager.

Part of the regional algae initiative calls for local companies to share information about their research and development efforts as part of a regular “commercialization of algae seminars.” For example, Kent BioEnergy is scheduled to make a noon presentation in Hubbs Hall today at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography about its work with Clemson University in developing microalgal-based water treatment techniques. The San Diego company says it has progressed from using algae in finfish aquaculture to increasingly complex technologies, such as using algal biomass to fuel power plants.

“For all the excitement we feel about this,” Halperin says, “We’re also really committed to trying to keep the hype level down.”

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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