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How Will Algae Impact Agriculture And The Gas Pump?

Algae get their start in large Sun Tubes. Note the stepstool in the photo for a size comparison.
Courtesy of
Algae get their start in large Sun Tubes. Note the stepstool in the photo for a size comparison.
How Will Algae Impact Agriculture And The Gas Pump?
What impact could algae have on modern agriculture in the United States? Scientists around the country exploring the potential of algae as a biofuel. We talk to UCSD professor Stephen Mayfield about algae as a fuel source.

The Algal Biofuels Symposium's "The Science to Support Algal Biofuel Commercialization" is Friday, April 23, 2010, at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The search for green energy is a large part of the effort to clean up the planet. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we see energy innovation all around us. Wind farms, cars using hybrid fuels, and the big growth in solar power, especially here in San Diego. But there's one more innovation that's not talked about as much as the rest, partially because it's the newest of the green fuel alternatives. It's algae used as a biofuel. A symposium dedicated to bringing the new energy potential of algae into the commercial market is being held in San Diego this week. I’d like to welcome my guests. Stephen Mayfield, he’s director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. And, Stephen, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD (Director, San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology): Thanks very much for having us on.

CAVANAUGH: And Holly Lapre is vice president of CleanTECH San Diego. Holly, good morning.

HOLLY LAPRE (Vice President, CleanTECH San Diego): Hi. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Steve, let me start out by asking you something that may be a ridiculous question but I want everybody to know and be on the same page. What is algae? Is it any type of seaweed?

MAYFIELD: Yeah, so seaweed is one of many different algaes. So algae, the critical parts of it are that it lives in water and it’s photosynthetic. And to be a little more esoteric than that, it actually means that it’s eukaryotic, it’s sophisticated. There are also photosynthetic prokaryots and those are called cyanobacteria but sometimes blue-green algae. But in bioenergy, we group all those together.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. All right. I think I understand. What led scientists to focus on algae in the first place as an object of research?

MAYFIELD: Well, I’ve worked on it actually for 25 years, mainly because it’s a good genetic system and because it’s a model plant. So it does the exact same photosynthesis that higher plants do but because they’re single-celled and because they’re small, much easier to grow in lab, we figured out how to do genetics on them early on, so it’s just been a good model system to work on just to get the basic rules of how photosynthesis works.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So what kind of algae are you using in your research?

MAYFIELD: So I use two different ones. The main one we use is a green algae. It’s called chlamydomonas reinhardtii. It’s a fresh water species. It’s everywhere; it’s ubiquitous. You’ll find it in your backyard, all over the world. And then lately we’ve been working on some brown algae, some diatoms, because they grow in saltwater and part of the bioenergy is we cannot use fresh water to do this.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. So what kind of products is algae being used to develop?

MAYFIELD: Well, in the bioenergy sector it actually makes what we call drop-in fuels or fungible fuels. So the oils from algae can be directly converted to gasoline, to diesel, to jet fuel. And, in fact, a company that I started, called Sapphire Energy, flew a Continental Airlines jetliner last year for about 90 minutes on jet fuel made from algae. They drove a Prius across the country on diesel and drove it back on gasoline, so we can make any of those.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more, in fact we’re going to talk an awful lot about algae as fuel, but there are other kinds of uses that algae is being developed for: nutritional uses, pharmaceutical uses. Tell us a little bit about those.

MAYFIELD: Well, so we already grow about $3.5 billion worth of algae that we sell as nutraceuticals. Those are mainly anoxidants, astaxanthin and beta-carotene. But we also – you see them in the grocery store as Super Blue Green. That’s an algae called spirolena. And now lately, my lab has actually worked for the last 10 years making therapeutic proteins in algae, and just published a paper last week showing that we can actually make some very sophisticated human therapeutic proteins in algae. And what we’ll have the opportunity, I think, by making these in algae is to make them much cheaper than we do in existing systems.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Stephen Mayfield. He’s director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. My second guest is Holly Lapre. She’s vice president of CleanTECH San Diego. And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think about the potential of this new biofuel, algae? How do you think San Diego is doing promoting clean energy? Give us a call with your questions or comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So tell us what makes algae such a good candidate for biofuel?

MAYFIELD: So one of the things that we’re going to face in the not-too-distant future is that there are so many people on the planet now that we are going to run out of our ability to feed them all. So biofuels can be derived either from higher plants, they can be derived from anything photosynthetic or algae. And what algae gives us is the opportunity to produce bioenergy on non-arable land so we don’t have to compete with food production. Obviously the number one biofuel we have out there right now is corn ethanol. About 25% of our corn crop now goes into ethanol and, you know, that’s been debated how much of an impact that has on food, food cost, but clearly it has some and it’s going to have more in the future.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the things that, in reading about this, that I found so fascinating is that algae as it – the way we’ve used it as fuel is when it disintegrates and it, you know, it’s in the earth for years and years and years and years, it produces petroleum and we go and find it. But what you’ve been able to do is take algae and make it produce petroleum almost in real time.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, well, actually what I always tell people is, yes, unfortunately, this is not a new idea.


MAYFIELD: Algae has been making petroleum for millions of years. The only thing we’re doing is we’re just avoiding the ‘bury it underground and have to go look for it’ part of that.


MAYFIELD: And we produce it in ponds. We extract the oil out of it. The oil is anywheres from 30 to 40% of the algae. That leaves us 60 to 70% of something other, and what that other is is protein, a little bit of carbohydrate. So that protein also has a value. We can use it for animal feed, we can use it to turn it into bioplastics. We can turn it into fertilizer. There’s a lot of different things we can use for those.

CAVANAUGH: And what about the fuel itself? There’s, you know, a lot of problem with regular oil used in cars and gasoline. It has to be cleaned, it has to be processed. What about algae, the oil, the petroleum that algae produces? Is it in itself cleaner?

MAYFIELD: Well, what comes out of algae looks a lot like vegetable oil. It’s fatty acids and other hydrocarbons. That can be put in directly into a refinery and cracked into gasoline or diesel. Once it’s cracked into gasoline or diesel, it is indistinguishable. You can drop it right into your tank and it will burn the same. People always say does it pollute less when it burns? It does not pollute less when it burns. It’s still putting out CO2. The difference is that we’ve captured all that CO2 in the photosynthetic process so we release the O2 when we burn it, we recapture it by photosynthesis and put that back into hydrocarbons, so it’s a continuous cycle.

CAVANAUGH: I see. By growing more algae…

MAYFIELD: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: …you recapture the CO2.

MAYFIELD: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see what you’re saying. You know, you mentioned, Steve, in the problems that other biofuels have faced, and a lot of the excitement over biofuels has been damped by the fact that it competes with food production. Tell us a little bit more, again, how algae gets around that.

MAYFIELD: So algae has spent the last few billion years learning how to survive in adverse environments. That’s why it grows in your birdbath and in the corner of your shower if you’re a San Diego State student and don’t clean up after yourself. But what that means is that it can grow in places that other higher plants won’t. So we can grow this in what’s called wasteland. Some people have said, you know, can we grow this in deserts? Well, you still have to have water. There are large saline aquifers under lots of the southwestern United States, so the components you need are, you need CO2, you need sunlight, and you need water but it doesn’t have to be high quality water. We can use brackish water, we can use municipal waste water, we can use oceans, complete saline water. So we have an opportunity to grow this stuff in places that we are not growing crop plants right now.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get to guest Holly Lapre but first I want to take a phone call. We’re inviting your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Nancy is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Nancy. Welcome to These Days.

NANCY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.


NANCY: Thanks for taking my call. I’m amazed with the technologies that you folks are innovating. And I’m at the San Diego County Office of Education, and interested in how we can engage the next generation of innovators, our kids in K-12 education, to understand the basic science that you’re doing and how the innovation is really going to change our capacity to fuel the future.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, thank you for that. And I guess, Holly, is there any outreach in trying to get this – the next generation excited about this kind of science?

LAPRE: Absolutely. And that’s one of the main functions of CleanTECH San Diego. As a nonprofit business organization, we actually are the overseer of this cluster management of what we have today about 700 CleanTECH companies in the greater San Diego region. And as part of overseeing that cluster, we also have to demonstrate and showcase. Part of what we do is we introduce exciting new clusters and sectors within the broad CleanTECH umbrella is really try to put the searchlamp that San Diego is – if I can take a few words of the mayor’s State of the City address…


LAPRE: …said he wants to make San Diego synonymous with clean technology. And so how do we do that? We have such a broad cross section of stakeholders that are operating in wind and solar and biofuels. We’re not just a solar capital here in San Diego. There’s actually, I think, upwards of 40 biofuels company (sic) here in San Diego. So what are we doing as a region? And that’s really why we as an organization are trying to create a brand that supports the growth and facilitate the strength of our sectors.

CAVANAUGH: But where are we now? Where do we stand in the clean industry sector nationally? How would you rate us?

LAPRE: Well just last year we were recognized as a solar leader. We have the most solar installations in the state, if not the country. We also had the most solar potential in terms of the assets eligible for installation. And then there are a couple of companies that I think are real gems for San Diego. The doctor just mentioned Sapphire Energy. They had received some investment dollars from Bill Gates’ Foundation. Another household name here in San Diego in the biofuels base is Synthetic Genomics. Dr. Craig Venter oversees that company and they had just received $600 million from ExxonMobil. So these are the type of companies that are hatching here in San Diego and these are the type of opportunities that are presented for university graduate students, and they just hired, I think, 100 at Synthetic Genomics at the end of last year. And you guys at Sapphire hired…


LAPRE: …145. So there’s a great deal of activity happening in the biofuel sector, both in the development and the research but also in the job creation. And that’s the story that we’re intent on selling. And I’ll tell you, we had the great opportunity to host Secretary Bradshaw, California Labor Secretary, just last week. She came down to San Diego, was so intent on getting some face time with some of our scientists and our biofuels companies, so we took her on a tour. Dr. Mayfield met with her, the folks at Synthetic Genomics, Sapphire Energy, some folks at the university, SG Biofuels, and others to say, to show them what kind of activity’s happening here, what kind of private investment dollars are being delivered and what kind of – We also had the DOE invest in some of these companies as well. So you’re looking at both the private investment activity and the federal government activity.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Holly Lapre. She’s vice president of CleanTECH San Diego. And Stephen Mayfield, director of San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. And we are talking about algae used as a biofuel and the potential of algae bringing this technology into the commercial market. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call from Casey in Carlsbad. Good morning, Casey, and welcome to These Days.

CASEY (Caller, Carlsbad): Hello.


CASEY: Yeah, the algae is very exciting but what I would like to emphasize is we do need to reduce CO2 and it does produce CO2 when you burn it in our cars. And the – really, the big longterm solution, which has not happened, is the complete decentralization of energy where every person has solar hot water and solar photovoltaics on their home and they’re able to plug their cars into that source and that way the cars are running without CO2. And I don’t know what you’re referring to as a wasteland. There might be underappreciated lands, and there’s problems with all these. With the windmills, there’s a big problem with bird loss. We need to move like Canada to horizontal windmills. Nuclear is really, until you figure out the cost of the waste and the longterm storage, it’s really not feasible. But I am very excited about algae but people need to think about appropriate technology. You don’t need to split atoms to heat water. And the overall bigger picture, which is decentralization.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Casey, for those comments. Thanks for calling in. Stephen, I’m wondering where you see algae in this whole world of alternative fuels?

MAYFIELD: So right now we’ve invested quite a bit in things that will produce electricity, whether that’s solar or whether it’s wind turbines or even whether it’s nuclear. But right now electricity’s only about one-third of the energy we use. So two-third comes from petroleum and for liquid fuels, they’re mainly used in transportation, so heavy trucks and airplanes are never going to go on electrical. So we have to think about ways to replace those. I think one of the alarming things that I’ve come to figure out over the last year as we look at statistics, we really only started burning petroleum in 1900 and right now, with our existing resources, we will be through all of them by the end of this century. And so we really have to start thinking now how are we going to replace that?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now do you feel with your research and with your company that you’re on the cusp of commercial application of this?

MAYFIELD: Yeah, we do. You know, of course the start-up companies are always a little more aggressive in their projections than we academic guys are. They say they’re 3 to 5 years off; I think in 3 to 5 years they will definitely be producing fuel. We’ll be driving cars on it and flying airplanes on it. What the cost of that is, is still up for debate because cost has a lot to do with going to scale. We burn about 300 billion gallons of petroleum in this country every year. So to make a significant dent in that, that’s going to take a big number. That’s 30 billion or 60 billion gallons of fuel that we’re going to have to produce. That’s an enormous scale. So to get to that’s going to take a little while and as we get to it, obviously, we’ll become more efficient, the cost’ll go down. So we’ll be producing something in 3 to 5 years that we can use, probably be a tad expensive but I think at 10 years out we will have made enough inventions that we will have it down to the $2, $3, $4 a gallon range. And the sad news for all of us, the shocking news, is that by that time I think liquid petroleum will be up in the $8 to $10 a gallon range. But that’s just a guess on my part. That’s not based upon anything other than that we’re running out of it and supply and demand’s going to drive it to that.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s go to Josh in Spring Valley. Good morning, Josh. Welcome to These Days.

JOSH (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning. This is a great topic. I’ve been following some algae stuff, oh, for the last several years now and it’s great to have your guests on. My question is based on the cost, the energy cost in the development of the fuel. One of my biggest complaints with methanol opposed – in addition to just its using crops, is there’s an enormous amount of energy that it takes to actually produce the fuel itself. And when, you know, so when you’re looking at the amount of energy in relation to the amount of energy output you get from the actual burning of the fuel, it’s pretty minimal. So my question is, how does algae stack up to that and what kind of energy return versus production are we getting?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Josh.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, so that’s exactly right. When we convert corn into ethanol, we actually – takes more energy to produce than we get out of it. There’s two big reasons for that. One is the amount of fertilizer that we have to put on corn, so, believe it or not, fertilizer is made from petroleum. One of the other shocking things is as we run out of petroleum, the cost of fertilizer is going to go up, and this is something we are going to have to face, no way around that one. The second one is that after you ferment the starch or convert it into sugar and ferment that into ethanol, because we don’t drink that we actually have to boil the ethanol off and that takes a huge amount of energy to distill it. So those two things are what really cost you in energy input to get corn into ethanol. We avoid both of those with algae. So because of that, we think we’re about 70% better. The early calculations, it’s called the life cycle analysis—that means you have to measure everything from cradle to grave—and if you do that, algae looks to be about 70% better than ethanol. Still costs you something, it still costs about 30% energy in to get that 100% back out. Those are efficiencies that we can work on. Part of that will drive cost down and, obviously, part of that will make it a little more environmentally sustainable.

CAVANAUGH: Did you say that it’s a question – it’s between 70% for ethanol and 30% for algae?

MAYFIELD: No, no, no. Ethanol is about – if you compare it to petroleum…


MAYFIELD: …it’s close to zero.


MAYFIELD: You get no net benefit. And with algae, you get about a 70% benefit.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. I understand. I understand.

MAYFIELD: It still takes…


MAYFIELD: …30% of the energy…


MAYFIELD: …to get that out.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Noel is calling us from San Clemente. Good morning, Noel, and welcome to These Days.

NOEL (Caller, San Clemente): How’re you doing? I had a question for you regarding the genetic biohazard. Genetically engineering something as ubiquitous as algae concerns me very much because the unintended consequences of this – these spores getting out and now we have a modified organism with really no way of predicting what it is going to do in the environment. I view that as a significant risk.

CAVANAUGH: Noel, thanks for the call.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, that absolutely is a significant risk. Fortunately for us, algae as it exists, makes 30 to 40% lipid, so there’s not a lot of engineering we’re going to have to do with that right now, at least not the first generation guys. That’s not to say that we don’t think about those things, we absolutely do. We certainly want to understand the system. I think the biggest concern people have had – I know, personally, the biggest concern I’ve had is, you know, I’m not a big fan of genetically engineered food if the point of it is just to increase somebody’s profit. But there are some very nice things that we put in in genetically engineered food. One is resistance to pathogens, things that come along and eat it. And what that does for us is that reduces greatly the amount of pesticides we have to spray on crops. So I think that one was a real benefit. That’s actually the only kind of genetic modification that I think we’re going to need in algae. We’re going to have to give it some sort of crop protection, and some of those things we find them out in the natural environment, some of those we may have to engineer in. But in terms of the – what we’re going to put out in the field for the next 3 to 5 years, none of those are going to be genetically modified the way we think of crops mainly because we don’t have to. They already exist. We have a huge number of algae out there. Some people estimate as high as 3 million different species. Certainly, we have hundreds of thousands of species and among those we have some that are very rapid growing and produce very nice levels of oil, so we’re kind of already there.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue to talk about the new energy potential of algae and continue to take your phone calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the energy potential of algae and a symposium that’s dedicated to exploring the commercial use of these new algae researches. That’s coming to San Diego later this week. I’m speaking with Stephen Mayfield. He’s director of San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. And Holly Lapre is vice president of CleanTECH San Diego. And we’re taking your calls, your questions and your comments about this new research at 1-888-895-5727. I wanted to ask you, Stephen, a little bit about the business end of this development. What role is the federal government playing in supporting the development of algae as an alternative energy source?

MAYFIELD: Well, this came about in a very interesting way. It’s one of the few times – I’ve been a research scientist for 25 years, and I have to say on the algae biofuel side, this was actually spearheaded by the venture groups. Sapphire Energy, which is a company I founded, we got money from Bill Gates and from the Wellcome Trust years, well a year and a half at least, before the federal government stepped up and started to fund this. So it’s a little bit unique but the last year, the Department of Energy and now the U.S. Department of Agriculture have sort of looked at the field out there in bioenergy, we’ve sort of added everything up, we’ve had a time to sort of do our analysis. After the original bump from corn ethanol, we looked at the other options, and algae sort of rose to the top. And most scientists now realize that it’s one of the best. We’re – So, first of all I should say, this is not a single technology is going to win. We’re going to need to make biofuel from algae, we’re going to need to make it from other biomass sources, we’re going to have to get getropha, we’re going to have to get cellulosic ethanol. We have to win on all those fronts. As I said before, 300 billion gallons per year is a big number and we’ve simply got to win on all of those fronts. But right now, algae’s got really good potential and people have recognized it. So this last year the Department of Energy stepped up, they funded an Algal Consortium that’s based out of Los Alamos National Labs. They’re going to fund several other groups. And so the feds are now finally stepping up and starting to put some in, as is the State of California is looking at this also.

LAPRE: And the Department of Defense also has stepped up as well. They actually extended two DARPA grants to the sum of, I think, $55 million to two San Diego companies, one is General Atomics and the other one is SAIC. So we’ve got the Department of Defense, we’ve got the Department of Energy certainly investing in a lot of the San Diego companies, hoping to accelerate the commercialization of algae.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Holly, you – we discussed the number of research jobs that this algae research has added to the San Diego economy. But when it comes to actually producing algae for commercial use, either in a test field or when it actually takes off, how do we keep those jobs in San Diego?

LAPRE: Well, that’s the $50,000 question, Maureen, and that’s an effort that we’re actually spearheading on behalf of our biofuel sector. So part of why we had Secretary Bradshaw here last week, before that, the week before that, we had Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in. And we’re trying to demonstrate that this particular sector represents some, I think, pretty exciting economic opportunities. And so how can we, as a region, how can we, as a state, either get out of the way or help to advance this business in this sector. So, for example, one of the DOE grant applications requires the companies to meet certain benchmarks and so while they are trying to meet those requirements, they find that the permitting slows them down and so they are not – they are disabled from meeting those benchmarks as part of the grant.

CAVANAUGH: In California.

LAPRE: In California. So that’s where we need to make sure that the regulations and the permitting and the local policies are matching the mandates and the criteria in these federal grants.

CAVANAUGH: Because I read that there’s a farm being developed, an algae farm being developed in New Mexico?

LAPRE: Yes, that’s correct. We actually – General Atomics has one in Texas, Sapphire has one in New Mexico. And that’s a real problem. That’s a real problem but it’s a reality. And so while we can really, I think, capitalize on the research expertise here in San Diego, what then happens was when they go in to do the production facilities, they are attracted and lured by other states and other incentives that make it much more attractive, and they have obligations to their investors to de-risk these production facilities. And so that’s something that we’re trying to issue the white flag and say, look, city officials, state officials, these are jobs that are migrating and these are high paying jobs and if we’re interested in spurring our economy then we need to – we need a course correction.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls about algae production and algae research, 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Tom. He’s, I believe, driving in his car. Good morning, Tom. Welcome to These Days. Tom, are you there?

TOM (Caller, Mobile Phone): Yes, I am.


TOM: Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can.

TOM: Okay, great. Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate the topic and what your guests are discussing this morning.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific.

TOM: I did have a question about how the technology can be applied to concentrated animal farming operations in that it could be used to reduce the amount of detrophication of our watershed?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, boy. Let’s – Tom, let’s focus in on that. Can you explain Tom’s question and then answer it, Stephen?

MAYFIELD: Yeah, so what I think Tom is asking…


MAYFIELD: …at least is – So animal waste is loaded with nitrogen and phosphate and that’s what algae needs to grow. So right now what happens to this is the runoff of that ends up in lakes or rivers. That causes natural algae blooms to occur there. The algae then sink to the bottom and die. And as they do that, they start to decay and when they decay they pull the oxygen out of the water, and that is bad for everything in the environment. In fact, because of that, we now have dead zones in our oceans outside of every major city in the world. There is one outside of New Orleans from the runoff from the Mississippi that is 200 square miles of nothing in there alive at all. That’s a shame. It’s a shame for two reasons. One, we’re killing our oceans. And, two, we’re wasting all that fantastic nitrogen and phosphate which algae needs anyway. No excuse for that. We should be feeding that stuff directly into algae ponds and using that to grow the algae to make biofuels, and we certainly can do that. There’s a bit of logistics on that because right now those things are simply allowed to seep into the ground so we’re going to have to, you know, spend a little bit of resources to concentrate those and focus them and get them back into the algae ponds the way they should be.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I wonder, how much interest have you gotten from oil and energy companies themselves in this research?

MAYFIELD: Well, I think when Exxon stepped up and put up $600 million for algae bioresearch, that completely validated the system. Obviously, we’d already talked to, at the San Diego Center for Algae Biotech, we talked to Exxon, we’ve talked to British Petroleum, we talked to Chevron, we talked to all of those groups. They’re all interested. They’re all looking. These are smart guys. You know, they’re the most sophisticated companies in the world, some of these, and they’ve looked around and they realize that we’re – used up our easy-to-gather petroleum where it’s costing us more every day and we’re running out of it. So they’ve got to find a way to replace this so there…

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let me follow up on what Holly was saying, though, about how we retain the production of this and get as many jobs out of this kind of research for San Diego and this region as possible. What would discourage a company from setting up a business here in San Diego to produce algae?

LAPRE: Well, I can give two examples of why two companies actually, one, Sapphire Energy, was – they relocated from San Francisco. That’s where their operations originated and then because of all the domain expertise around algae here in San Diego, they actually moved and relocated to the region. The other example of a company that moved here because of the research prowess was Synthetic Genomics. They were in Washington, actually just outside in Maryland, and they expanded their operations to tap into this what we call clustering effect where you have all of this sort of synergistic activity happening around biofuels. And that’s sort of where we are trying to come in and intervene. What you have is these companies don’t come here and they don’t accelerate in a vacuum. They actually come here because there is a vibrant ecosystem…


LAPRE: …that invites them, that sustains them. And so that’s the role that CleanTECH San Diego plays in trying to educate the policymakers and trying to entice the students to come in and take advantage of these high-paying jobs, and then to create that brand so that when companies are looking, where do we want to go to market, where are we going to take our product to the market and be close to the end user? And that’s – those are the decisions and those are the questions and answers that brought Synthetic and Sapphire and SG Biofuels and other folks in the traditional biofuels space. So we’re excited about that but we also have to be cognizant that there are real challenges and those challenges range from permitting, from zoning, just the lack of incentives that other clean technologies enjoy that biofuels don’t. So we hope to educate the policymakers and make that case.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Let’s take another call. John is calling us from La Mesa. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, La Mesa): Hello.


JOHN: I was wondering how long it takes for algae to go from incubation to a product?

MAYFIELD: So there’s a couple ways to answer that question. First of all, algae grow very quickly so they will actually divide about every 12 hours so you actually double your biomass every day. So if you’re talking about from when we inoculate a pond to when we might harvest it and then extract the fuel, that whole process is about 7 to 10 days simply because they grow so quickly. What we’d ultimately like to get into is what they call the continuous batch mode, which means maybe you’re harvesting a fifth of your pond every, you know, every day or two and processing that. And then you just renew the nutrients in it, keep the algae growing. But if you’re talking about scientifically how does the whole process take from discovering the algae to working out the engineering to get it out of the ponds, well, we’ve been working on it for a couple years and we’ve got a couple years left to go. We’ll have pilot plants out in the next year.


MAYFIELD: And then from those, we’ll start to, you know, get understanding and learning from those and then advance them forward from there.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, I want to ask you two quick questions that our callers want to know. How much water does it take to produce algae?

MAYFIELD: So less than crop plants but about 2 acre feet per year, we know that we’re going to lose in evaporation, depending upon the environment you grow them in. So if we grow them out in someplace like the Imperial Valley, which is actually geographically a very good place to grow these, the humidity’s a little higher there than it will be in some other parts, so the evaporation will be a little lower. We still have to work some of that stuff out. We don’t know when we go to really large scale what that’s going to be. But just – so we say two acre feet per year. Corn requires three. But the good news about algae is that does not have to be fresh water.

CAVANAUGH: Right. It can be brackish water.

MAYFIELD: It can be brackish water.


MAYFIELD: Salt water.

CAVANAUGH: Waste water?

MAYFIELD: Absolutely. Waste water’s for sure because they’re loaded with nitrogen and phosphate and we want to get that out of them.

CAVANAUGH: Another caller wanted to know do you have any estimate on how much like a gallon of algae gas would cost?

MAYFIELD: You know, right now, I think the best estimates I’ve seen are, say, something between $10 – $8 to $10, maybe $12 a gallon if we were at scale, all right? But that’s a pretty good – You know, as a biologist, that’s a very encouraging number for me. We always look at things as scientists and say, oh, if we have to make a tenfold or a hundredfold increase in the productivity, that’s the kind of numbers we deal with. So a two to threefold increase, that’s kind of an easy day for us I’d say.

CAVANAUGH: And what are you looking to get it down to?

MAYFIELD: Well, you know, so there’s a big debate on that.


MAYFIELD: Obviously, the cheaper we can get it, the better. So I think the target number that a lot of people aim for and talk about is $2 a gallon. The funny thing about society is the cheaper you make something, the more people waste it. So in some ways, it might be a good thing if we don’t get it too cheap because it’s a very valuable resource and we should not just be throwing this stuff away.

CAVANAUGH: Very good. Thank you so much. So much information from both of you today. I want to tell everyone that the Algal Biofuels Symposium takes place this Friday at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. I want to thank Stephen Mayfield, Holly Lapre, thank you so much.

MAYFIELD: Thank you.

LAPRE: Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment on anything you’ve heard, you can go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.