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

8/27/09Follow @bvbigelow

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support algae biofuels research and development is still urgently needed, despite highly publicized infusions of venture capital in Synthetic Genomics and Sapphire Energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, based in Golden, CO, “killed their algal program in ’96, and they just started it up again,” Mayfield says. (At SD-CAB, the research consortium formed earlier this year, a lot is riding on an application being prepared for a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.)

—Much of the federal government’s existing funding for algae-based biofuels research is coming from the U.S. Air Force, which is the largest energy consumer (aviation fuel) in the Department of Defense. As Mayfield puts it, “The Department of Defense is one of the natural customers on this.”

algaefarm_ponds2—The number of companies developing algae-based biofuels in the region has more than doubled from the nine startups I counted last December in a roundup of San Diego’s algae mini-cluster. After checking Cleantech San Diego’s database, Bicker says the number of algae companies is “in the mid-20s.” Many biofuel startups remain in stealth mode.

[An earlier version of the paragraph below mistakenly attributed a comment made by Greg Mitchell to Stephen Mayfield. The scientists also said they were talking about SD-CAB, and not Synthetic Genomics. We regret the error.]

—SD-CAB was negotiating with Exxon Mobil for funding before the oil giant announced its deal in July with Synthetic Genomics, according to the scientists. As Mitchell puts it, “Eight months of negotiating, and we got left at the altar.”

algaeincubation_tanks—Synthetic Genomics plans to build a San Diego facility to test various methods of growing algae, including whether it makes more sense to grow algae in open ponds or in large closed-system tanks known as bioreactors. Renowned genome pioneer J. Craig Venter, who is Synthetic Genomics founding chairman and CEO, seemed to indicate his preference for bioreactors when he belittled the agricultural approach to algae-based fuel production at an Innovation Summit in San Diego in April. In contrast, Mayfield says, “I don’t see any way to do it except in open ponds.”

—Even though algae biofuels technology is making rapid advances in the laboratory, the industry must overcome significant technical hurdles in developing industrial-size plants capable of producing biofuels at prices that are competitive with petroleum-based products. Using current technologies, Mayfield and Mitchell estimate that algae can produce more than 3,000 gallons of green crude oil per acre each year. They hope to dramatically increase the yield. One of the biggest challenges, though, is finding ways to increase the concentration of algae, which typically accounts for only 0.1 percent of the volume in each gallon of water. Another technical challenge is finding ways to efficiently strain the algae. As Mitchell put it, “It’s expensive to get all that water out.”

As McGinn absorbed the information, he said, “From a national security perspective, this is exactly the sort of thing we need to do in the United States. Business as usual is no longer going to work. We need to transform to a new energy profile.”

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

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  • Glenn Mosier

    Insightful article. The Department of Defense has a dual goal for funding algae biofuel research. They share the same economic motivation as all other huge consumers of energy. To that end the hurdle to be met is the price of oil in the future, a daunting task. The DOD’s strategic motivations for new energy technologies are not benchmarked against value of oil, but rather against a matrix of objectives including logistics, security and even the value of human life. For those reasons, the DOD may likely continue to fund research which the private sector could not justify.

    The focus will be on San Diego when The 3rd Annual Algae Biomass Summit comes to town on October 7th through the 9th.

  • algaepreneur

    Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes CO2. To learn more about the fast-track commercialization of the algae industry, you may want to check out the National Algae Association. It is the first algae trade association. It is made up of collaborating algae production companies, algae researchers and investors.

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