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 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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