All Green on the Western Front: San Diego Algae Pioneers Provide Glimpse of the Future of Biofuels

[Corrected 9/03/09, 7:20 am. See below.]

It felt almost anti-climactic when retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn arrived in San Diego last week to meet with some of San Diego’s leading algae biofuels scientists and tour a local biofuel research facility.

McGinn, a former commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet in San Diego, is a member of a blue-ribbon panel warning that continued U.S. reliance on fossil fuels (as well as the nation’s strained electric grid) pose significant threats to U.S. security. As a result, the retired admiral represents an unanticipated ally in efforts by San Diego’s emerging cleantech community to rapidly advance algae-to-biofuels technologies. The blue-ribbon panel, actually the military advisory board of CNA, a non-profit research group near Washington D.C., is urging the Pentagon to bolster its national-defense strategy by boosting energy conservation and by embracing alternative energy technologies as a way to end U.S. reliance on unfriendly foreign sources of crude oil.

McGinn’s support was welcomed, of course. But San Diego’s biofuels industry has gained so much momentum in such a short time, it’s not like McGinn was bringing badly needed reinforcements to a desperate struggle for survival.

Lisa Bicker, who heads the non-profit industry group Cleantech San Diego, marks the dawn of San Diego’s “green crude” revolution in mid-2008, when local scientists and industry officials first met to discuss their various efforts in algae biofuels research. The implications were obvious at the time, because U.S. gasoline prices were skyrocketing beyond $4 a gallon nationwide. Since then, news concerning San Diego’s advances in algae biofuels technology has been flying fast and furious.

One of the more significant developments occurred last September, when it was disclosed that San Diego’s Sapphire Energy had raised $100 million in venture capital to develop algae biofuels—and the investors included Bill Gates. Then there was a flurry of news in April surrounding the formation of SD-CAB, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, and the formulation of a $10 million Algae Fuel Prize competition organized by Del Mar, CA-based Prize Capital. All that, however, seemed to be eclipsed in July, when Exxon Mobile said it was investing $600 million to develop algae biofuels through a partnership with San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics, and the intense J. Craig Venter.

Even since July, much has happened. So what McGinn had to say to Bicker and local scientists wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the update he got from the front lines of algae biofuels development in San Diego.

McGinn met with Bicker, Stephen Mayfield, an expert in algae genetics at The Scripps Research Institute (and who broke the news that he is moving to UC San Diego San Diego in November), Greg Mitchell, a marine biologist at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Robert Knox, the oceanographic institute’s deputy director for research. Here are some of the insights I gleaned from their briefing:

—Mayfield told McGinn that federal funding to … Next Page »

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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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