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Powering the Future with Pond Scum
New Center Aims to Bring About Algae-Powered Green Revolution

Ioana Patringenaru | May 4, 2009

Drive though the Imperial Valley and you will see thousands of acres of land lying fallow, desolate and windswept. But in the eyes of many San Diego scientists and entrepreneurs, these lands hold the promise of a new green revolution, powered by biofuels made from algae, to be grown on this barren soil.

The fields could become the world’s largest algae farms. Researchers and businesspeople would then transform what they jokingly call “pond scum” into cheap, environmentally friendly biofuels.

To reach that goal, scientists from UC San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute and other local research institutions and companies announced last week the creation of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, or “SD-CAB.” The center’s primary goal is to create a national facility capable of developing and implementing innovative research leading to the commercialization of fuel production from algae.

To tackle this new challenge, the new center brings together the best and brightest minds from many disciplines, including biology, chemistry, engineering, economics and policy, said UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.

“We already have a collaborative community of scientists and entrepreneurs that gave rise to a thriving biotechnology cluster in San Diego,” Fox said during a press conference Tuesday at the UCSD Faculty Club. “Now we want to focus on building a segment of that community to create biofuels and other products out of algae.”

UCSD’s role

San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology contributors (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
From left: Lisa Bicker, CEO and president of Cleantech San Diego, UCSD Vice Chancellor Tony Haymet, UCSD Dean Steve Kay, Steve Mayfield, a researcher at The Scripps Research Institute and Greg Mitchell, a research biologist at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

UCSD is the center of gravity of this initiative, said Steve Kay, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences and SD-CAB’s director. But Kay also emphasized the importance of contributions from other institutions, including The Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute, San Diego State University and the biotech industry. UCSD contributed the largest number of new researchers for the new center, he also said.

Greg Mitchell, a research biologist at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is one of those scientists. Mitchell, an SD-CAB co-founder, said he firmly believes algae will turn out to be one of the major ways the United States will wean itself from its dependency on foreign oil. He has spent much of his career understanding how micro-organisms grow and respond to their environment. His research will help SD-CAB create models to predict how algae grow in different conditions. “I want San Diego to win the race to become the world leader in this field,” Mitchell said.

Impact on the region

A 40-acre algae farm just east of Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley near Niland. SD-CAB scientists will demonstrate the feasibility of growing algae for biofuels on a large scale here.

SD-CAB holds huge promise for the region, said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. Research on algal biofuels now employs 272 scientists and other workers in San Diego and provides nearly $16.5 million in payroll and $33 million in economic activity for the region, according to an economic assessment completed last week by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, Service Bureau.

According to the SANDAG analysis, every $100 million of venture capital funding applied toward private sector research spending on algal biofuels would be expected to generate $15 million in economic activity and nearly $7.75 million in payroll for 100 employees in the San Diego region.

“We will be leading the nation and possibly the work in the development of biofuels,” Sanders said.


Algae cultures start in these incubation tanks in the research building at the Niland facility. Here, researchers can select promising strains to seed larger outdoor growing ponds. (Photo / Jim Demattia)

SD-CAB hopes to capture a share of the $800 million set aside for alternative fuel research in the federal stimulus package passed in February. In the long run, President Barack Obama’s administration has pledged to invest 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product into research and development, said Kay, the dean of Biological Sciences.

The new center also plans to seek funding from corporations. A gallon of algae-based biofuels currently costs roughly $20 to $30, according to Steve Mayfield, a scientist at The Scripps Research Institute and an SD-CAB associate director. Mayfield said researchers believe they can bring that price down to about $2 sometime within the next 5 to 10 years.

A new economy

Ultimately, the goal is to turn tens of thousands of acres in the Imperial Valley into algae farms. The region badly needs an economic boost, said Tim Kelley, CEO of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation. Unemployment in the area is as high as 25 percent, he pointed out. Many residents work in agriculture and are out of a job six months out of the year. By contrast, algae can be grown 10 months out of the year in the area, he said.

Mid-sized "raceway" ponds circulate 20,000 to 37,000 gallons of growing algae. (Photo / Jim Demattia)

About 40,000 acres in the valley currently lay fallow because farmers can’t afford to plant crops or the land is not suitable for traditional agriculture. These fields are available to grow algae, which wouldn’t compete with traditional food crops, said Kelley, of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation.

“This will provide an opportunity to create a new economy and a new workforce,” UCSD Chancellor Fox said.

Transportation accounts for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in California and for 25 percent of emissions worldwide, said Tony Haymet, director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Algae-based biofuels promise to wean the United States away from its dependence on oil and all the problems it’s caused in the past 50 years, he added.

“How much would you pay for a gallon of fuel if it was made in Southern California?” Haymet asked.

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