Kent BioEnergy, With Decades of Algae Experience, Predicts Biofuel Innovation Will Come From “A Guy on a Tractor”

2/20/09Follow @bvbigelow

Jack Van Olst and Michael Massingill have an interesting perspective on the green gold rush underway in San Diego, where there has been a proliferation of startups focused on algae-based biofuels.

At a time when venture funds are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into startups that plan to make diesel, gasoline and jet fuel from algae, they say making biofuels is more of an agribusiness than an advanced biotechnology business. “If biofuels become a reality, they’re not going to be made in a laboratory somewhere—they’re going to be grown,” Massingill says. And if biofuels derived from algae are going to become economically viable, he says the solution is “not going to come from someone in a white lab coat. It going to come from a guy in blue jeans on a tractor.”

You could say they take a long view on the subject. Van Olst and Jim Carlberg are co-founders of San Diego-based Kent BioEnergy, a startup that has developed a variety of proprietary algae technologies over the past 37 years.

Van Olst told me their work began in 1970 when he and Carlberg began developing aquaculture systems for lobsters, abalone, scallops, and striped sea bass. The company they founded in 1972 eventually became the world’s largest producer of hybrid striped bass, producing 2 to 3 million pounds of fish and peak revenue of $10 million a year.

Kent BioEnergy Facility near Mecca, CA

Kent BioEnergy Facility near Mecca, CA

In recent years, as their fish aquaculture business came under increasing pressure from rising shipping costs and low-priced foreign competitors, Van Olst led the shift in focus to algae. What was Kent SeaTech became Kent BioEnergy, a reorganized company that plans to produce algae for energy, biomass, and water treatment applications. Their expertise with algae, though, has roots that began more than 15 years ago, when the company developed ways of using algae to clean the water in the fish pens at its 160-acre striped bass production facility.

“They started doing water remediation for their own business, and then they started doing water remediation for the (nearby) Salton Sea,” says Barry Toyonaga, Kent BioEnergy’s chief business officer. The enormous saline lake, which was created in a vast desert sink when the Colorado River breached a levee in 1905, is becoming increasingly contaminated by agricultural runoff … Next Page »

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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  • Fred Warren

    I am looking to develop two large algae growth facility in Arizona which will be powered by Solar and Wind. I really enjoy your ventures of developing of Biofuels. Could you possibly put me on your e-mail? I have a group of investors U.S. and Foreign who are interested.

    Thanks! Very Interesting
    Fred Warren,Environmental Technology Assistance Co. LLc.

  • Jeff W.

    “So hypothetically, at least, algae could produce the methane gas used to fuel a power plant and also absorb at least some of the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions.”

    Isn’t methane some 30 times more dangerous to the ozone than CO2? Maybe this problem is counteracted by using methane (fuel) as it is produced.