Fill’er up: San Diego’s Algae-Based Energy Sector Grows

10/16/09

In wake of last week’s Algae Biomass Summit, we thought now might be a good time to take stock of San Diego’s biofuels/biomass energy sector. After identifying a mini-cluster of eight algae technology companies last December, Bruce was surprised to discover that the nonprofit group Cleantech San Diego now counts 31 biomass and biofuel companies among the 640 cleantech companies in the San Diego area.

But the definition that Cleantech uses is all-inclusive. Its list of biofuel and biomass companies includes New Leaf Biofuel, a San Diego company that produces biofuels from restaurants’ recycled vegetable oil, and Menon & Associates, which has an $800,000 state grant to develop biodiesel from California agricultural waste. Another interesting local startup, SG Biofuels, is focused on developing biofuels from the Jatropha plant.

Companies that are focusing their technology development narrowly on algae—the subject of last week’s Algae Biomass Summit—account for only about a fourth of the total that Cleantech San Diego lists as biomass and biofuel companies. To those toiling in this nascent industry, however, the numbers nevertheless confirm that San Diego is emerging as a national hub for biofuels, and for algae-based fuels in particular.

There are several reasons behind San Diego’s emergence in the biomass energy and biofuels sector. The region’s prominence in biotechnology provides a rich pool of scientific know-how that biomass/biofuels companies can tap when they set up shop in San Diego. Another benefit – particularly to the algae segment – is the availability of flat, agricultural land in nearby Imperial County, an ideal location for algae production, says Rick Halperin, a consultant and former project manager of the Regional Algae Initiative.

What does the future hold for these companies? Not even true believers think all will survive. ExxonMobil’s $600 million investment in San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics created a sense of euphoria about the space, which sooner or later must give way to more realistic expectations about a risky but potentially game-changing technology. By many estimates, an affordable, algae-based fuel is at least 10 years away.

Steve Mayfield, a Scripps Research Institute expert in algae genetics and co-founder of San Diego’s Sapphire Energy, says a shakeout is inevitable. Some companies may disappear; others may redirect their technologies into other business lines, such as nutraceuticals.

Using Cleantech’s list, I winnowed the roster of companies that are focused on technology innovations in the algae biomass energy and biofuels sector to a list of companies with headquarters in the San Diego area:

Applied Sciences & Engineering: A developer of technology and tools to help algae grow.

Circle Biodiesel & Ethanol: Developer of a system designed to economically harvest large amounts of algae, and recover the biofuels.

Carbon Capture: Company wants to use carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to support algae growth.

HR BioPetroleum: With offices in San Diego and Hawaii, this company is working with partner Shell to use marine algae to produce biofuels.

Kai BioEnergy: Aims to produce biodiesel fuel from micro-algae biomass.

Kent BioEnergy: This company, with offices in San Diego and a facility near Imperial County’s Salton Sea, is working to culture and harvest microalgae to produce liquid fuels.

Sapphire Energy: With backing from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners, and the Wellcome Trust, this startup has said it’s developing algae as a “green crude” substitute for crude oil.

Synthetic Genomics: This company, founded by J. Craig Venter, is working with ExxonMobil to develop algal biofuels.

Verdezyne: Formerly known as CODA Genomics, this venture-backed startup in Carlsbad, CA, is developing proprietary biotechnology tools needed to produce biofuels and chemicals.

No list is definitive, of course. Cleantech’s list, for example, omits four companies that Bruce counted in December as part of San Diego’s algae technology mini-cluster. Two of the companies he listed, General Atomics and SAIC, are diversified defense contractors in San Diego that are working under relatively small DARPA contracts to develop algae biofuels for the military. Earthrise Farms, which operates in Irvine, CA, and Calipatria, CA, is focused on growing Spirulina blue-green algae as a world food resource. And San Diego-based Genomatica is developing methods of using algae to produce petrochemical feedstocks.

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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