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2012 Could Determine Future Of Algae As Fuel

Evening Edition

If it's proven economically viable, this promising biofuel could bring jobs and money to San Diego in the future.

Aired 12/5/11 on KPBS News.

If it's proven economically viable, this promising biofuel could bring jobs and money to San Diego in the future.

Soaring oil prices and more than a billion dollars in public and private money put algae biofuels on the map in San Diego two years ago. The possibility that diesel fuel could be grown ignited a race among several local companies. Next year will be critical for a fledgling industry hoping to create a "Green Bullet."

Stephen Mayfield in his lab on July 18, 2011. Mayfield is one of the scientis...
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Above: Stephen Mayfield in his lab on July 18, 2011. Mayfield is one of the scientists in San Diego working on turning algae into fuel.

The lab at U.C. San Diego is typical: small, cramped, and full of equipment. The work here could transform the energy landscape, since oil generated from algae has the same molecular structure as oil from fossil fuels.

That makes the biofuel and the fossil fuel interchangeable, allowing them to be blended, exchanged and shipped the same way.

Scientist Steven Mayfield runs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology at U.C. San Diego. He said different strains of algae are cultured in his lab.

Mayfield said researchers have made huge advances, perfecting strains of algae that produce the most lipids, a.k.a. oil. And the work isn't limited to the lab: At a nearby greenhouse algae is grown in ponds and bags.

"We're seeing the sunlight change during the day, we're seeing the temperature change at night, predators can land in here and eat our guys," Mayfield said. "So this is much more real world, and part of this is to see if what we're doing in the lab has any chance to survive in the real world."

Working out the problems is the key to making the product economically viable. Oil from algae has already powered a jet and destroyer*, but it has to make sense financially.

Algae can be used to create a molecularly similar fuel to fossil fuel.
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Above: Algae can be used to create a molecularly similar fuel to fossil fuel.

The technology got a lot of attention when more than a billion dollars in funding - half of which came from the U.S. Department of Energy - was given to local companies.

"Expectations were significant, because remember, the price of oil was way up," said Marney Cox, chief economist with the San Diego Association of Governments. "It peaked at about $147 per barrel. Gas prices were going up. People were looking for ways to cut down on their energy consumption and expenses."

San Diego companies Synthetic Genomics, Sapphire Energy and a division of General Atomics are among those racing to move the idea out of the lab. The concentration of local firms has created 500 local jobs, but that's only a small fraction of the local clean-tech industry.

"They know the technology needs to be brought along. It needs to be able to produce a consumer product at a price level competitive with other energy sources," Cox said.

That means building a full-size algae farm and harvesting large volumes of oil.

Sapphire Energy Vice President Tim Zenk says the San Diego startup is one of several local firms hoping to turn the fuel into money. The idea took root and grew even as the recession hammered the rest of the economy.

"We've gone from four or five guys in the back of Scripps Laboratory thinking about this idea, doing some investigations, and locking up some patents - to now 150 people strong," Zenk said. "A quarter of those people have advanced degrees, Ph.D.s."

Zenk said their 300-acre demonstration facility in New Mexico will churn out one million gallons of oil a day.

"We need salty, briny, water; they have billions of acre feet," he said. "We need very intense sunlight for this phase of the project, that will change over time. They have an abundance of very intense sunlight. And they have an abundance of deserts."

A large-scale farm is critical: Zenk said biologists and engineers need to work out the best ways to grow, harvest and transport their algae-based fuel. And they need to bring down the cost of production. Zenk says algae has the potential to become the nation's most productive crop. He compared it to the most valuable crop on the market today.

"It's strawberries. It's about $400 per acre, a farmer could make on strawberries. If you look at algae, it's about $19,000 per acre."

And that high figure is on land not suitable for farming. If the New Mexico facility works, more could be built in places like the Imperial Valley. Economists say farms there would fit nicely with San Diego's concentrated research and development facilities.

UCSD's Mayfield said a successful demonstration project could fuel more funding from both private and public sources.

"Doing a computer-generated diagram is one thing. Getting out in the field, walking it and seeing it, and seeing the production that comes out of it and seeing the oil flowing out of it, that's the game changer," said Mayfield. "That's a mind changer for everybody in this country."

The Department of Defense has expressed interest in developing biofuels as an alternative energy source for the nation's military machines. A steady source of funding could hasten development of the technology - and that could enhance the industry's economic footprint in San Diego.

*Correction: A previous version of the story listed the biodiesel-powered ship as a battleship. It was a destroyer.

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Avatar for user 'fatalgae'

fatalgae | December 5, 2011 at 10:55 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Before taking any grant money an algae researchers they should be made to sign a statement of perjury. If a researcher takes grant monies to grow oil, they should NOT be allowed to grow for food, feed or cosmetics. They should return monies back to the taxpayer.


Solydra story is opening a huge can of worms at the DOE LOAN GURANTEE LOAN PROGRAM. Its not just about the Solar loan guarantee program. Look at all the millions in fees collected by the DOE LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM with projects 20% completed. Also, an audit needs to be done on DOE GRANTS to individuals from the DOE that are now working in private industry. Very incestuous! There needs to be an audit on each individual loan program for amount funded and results!

The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at universities for another 50 years?

In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, research has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!

A Concerned Taxpayer

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Avatar for user 'dduggerbiocepts'

dduggerbiocepts | December 5, 2011 at 11:17 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

"Seeing the production that comes out of it (Algae biofuel and biofuel development in general) and seeing the oil flowing out of it, that's the game changer," said Mayfield. "That's a mind changer for everybody in this country."

Wrong! Seeing the money flowing into a company from large scale biofuel sales that are competing head-on with other forms of alternative energy - all alternative energy necessarily competing with petroleum production costs (not market costs) - is the mind and the economic game changer globally.

This isn't likely to happen since algae and other large scale biofuels are tied cost wise to the industry with which they compete petroleum. Petroleum (natural gas) costs control the price of nitrogen fertilizer, diesel fuel costs control the economic feasibility/mining costs of peak phosphates. The N and P are the primary and critical peak resource components of NPK fertilizers which control commercial scale algae and other biofuel production. All at-scale biofuel production is dependent upon NPK - with which algae and biofuels will compete for against human food production.

Biofuels are essentially non-starters from this particular economic sustainability perspective. Unfortunately, it's the economics of biofuel production that get the least attention by biofuel entrepreneurs and developers - and our gov. scientifically and economically illiterate political leadership.

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Avatar for user 'AnnalisseMayer'

AnnalisseMayer | December 5, 2011 at 12:15 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Isn't algae the major source of the oxygen we breathe? If we harvest it in large quantitites, won't we suffocate?

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Avatar for user 'Myafish'

Myafish | December 12, 2011 at 12:42 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

What ridiculous comments! Do you work for a fossil fuel company that is worried algae biofuel research is getting to close for comfort. To claim that $2.5 billion dollars has been spent on algae research over the last fifty years is off 25 fold, and to claim there are no algae products on the market is even more absurd. The DOE will spend about $30 million this year on algae research, and spent about the same amount last year, which were the first algae research funds they have spent in 15 years. Over the last fifty years they have funded maybe $100 million on algae research, so get your fact straight!

Now as for algae products, today algae sales are about $7.5 billion, yes 7.5 BILLION dollars. Martek alone will sell over $500 million worth of omega-3 fatty acids from algae this year, while the human nutrition market from algae is about $3.5 billion, and algae animal and fish feed is one of the fastest growing markets in the world. If you haven't noticed there are now 7 billion people on the planet and we need to feed and fuel them, and algae can really help play an important role in both of these needs. So gets your facts straight, and stop making stuff up. As a concerned tax payer you should be worried about the $300 BILLION we will spend this year on fossil fuel subsidies, that's what a concerned tax payer should be worried about!

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Avatar for user 'OrganicMechanic'

OrganicMechanic | February 1, 2012 at 2:48 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

I think we are on the verge of a revolution in biofuels and materials due to algae.

Algae can be made into a variety of biofuels, including biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, and biogas. To add to the conversation, here are some pros and cons to algae as fuel:

Algae grows in all directions
Single celled, no superstructure required for algae (roots, trunks, leaves)
Growth: 140 days for land crops; algae is year round, mature in 1-2 days
Algae weathers extreme conditions, is resistant to drought, wind, rain
Grow 30-100 x more oil per acre than corn or soybeans
No sulfur, non toxic, biodegradable
Can mix with existing fuels in existing vehicles
Can also produce bioplastics, medicine, nutrition, feed, fertilizer, more
Can absorb CO2 and other pollutants from power and cement plants, fossil fuel refining, fermentation based industries, ethanol production, etc


Scale - difficulty replicating lab results into larger volume of production

Growing - using open ponds are easily contaminated, PBR's (photobioreactors) can be expensive

Processing - challenges to harvesting & extracting oil

If chemicals are used to extract oil or process fuel, exhaust can be toxic

Environmental Concerns - in scaled cultivation, especially of GM (genetically modified) algae - what if it seriously disrupts the ecosystem?

Carbon Capture - is it really feasible? Can the algae keep up with the output, and what about during the night when algae is not active? Can the waste be reliably transferred into the algae? Are the right growing conditions and enough land there to cultivate the algae? ("to fully use the emissions from a 50 MWe natural gas fired power plant land would require 2200 acres of algae.") Additional nutrients are required, such as N, P, or K, which must be added in precise amounts and typically come from chemicals like ammonia or nitrate and phosphorous. Taking into consideration all of the processing, is there a net capture of CO2? Also, capturing the emissions it is not true sequestration, as it will be burned again as fuel.

Differing results from strains, environmental conditions, growing systems

To learn how to make algae biofuels, check out:
Algae to Biodiesel:
Algae to Ethanol:

For a look at the broad range of goods possible from algae and considerations for how to scale them up into entrepreneurial pursuits, check out Algae Business:

Let me know if there are any questions about algae, or equipment to cultivate and use biofuels! Organic Mechanic provides green solutions for electricity, transportation, and agriculture.


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