DOE Awards $9M for Algae Biotech Center

6/28/10Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego’s quest to become a hub for the development of algae-based biofuels got a boost today, with the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB), saying it’s getting the lion’s share of a three-year, $9 million federal Department of Energy grant awarded today.

In addition to the $9 million in federal funds, a consortium of seven companies—including San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, General Atomics, and Sempra Energy—are providing $3 million to finance R&D slated to begin this summer. Funding for the consortium has been structured in a way that is similar to the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB), which I profiled in May when Jose Olivares, the group’s executive director, came through San Diego. The San Diego-based consortium had also sought funding under the DOE program, and the funding announced today was in some respects a political consolation prize for the San Diego contingent.

About two-thirds of the cash will fund research underway at SD-CAB, which includes UC San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, according to Stephen Mayfield, a UCSD professor of biology who leads the San Diego algae biotech center. DOE funding also is going to UC Davis, the University of Nebraska, and Rutgers University to identify ways to protect algae crops, improve nutrient recycling, and for developing new genetic tools to improve algal fuel production.

Mayfield says protecting algal crops from predators ranks as one of the key problems that must be addressed as companies like Sapphire Energy move to commercialize methods of producing gasoline, jet fuels, and diesel from algae. “The reason it’s still basic research is because there is no one in the country who works on algal pathology,” says Mayfield, who also is a co-founder and scientific advisor at Sapphire. Algae fall prey to a variety of predators, Mayfield says, including primitive fungi known as chytrids, and microscopic filter feeders like rotofers and Daphnia (water fleas).

The announcement of the DOE award was made today by Cathy Zoi, the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Life Technologies, Chevron, Praxair, and W.R. Grace contributed part of the $3 million in financing, joined the industrial consortium of supporters, along with Sapphire Energy, General Atomics and Sempra Energy.

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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