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California Energy Commission Awards
UCSD $2 Million for Biofuels Research

May 5, 2011

By Kim McDonald

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Bags of red and green algae grown for biofuels research hang in the UCSD greenhouse. Credit: Nathan Schoepp, UCSD

The California Energy Commission has awarded $2 million to UC San Diego to accelerate research that will demonstrate the feasibility of using a variety of new kinds of biofuels to supplement or replace petroleum-based transportation fuels in the future.

The state agency selected the university for the award, which will be used to investigate a wide range of plant-based biofuels, because it is one of the nation’s leaders in developing technologies to turn algae into biofuels. Last year, a consortium of research institutions headed by UCSD received $9-million from the U.S. Department of Energy and another $3 million from biotechnology and energy companies for algal biofuels research. The university is also a partner in a $4-million grant awarded last year by the California Department of Labor to train workers in the San Diego and Imperial County region for jobs in the emerging biofuels industry.

“These awards validate San Diego as one of the major centers for biofuels research in the country, and the world,” said Steve Kay, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego.

The goal of the California Energy Commission’s initiative is to develop a variety of what it calls “drop-in,” sustainable fuels and to accelerate the pace of research on these renewable transportation fuels so the state can reach its mandated targets. The state’s Alternative Fuels Plan mandates that 9 percent of conventional fuels be replaced by alternative fuels by 2012, 11 percent by 2017 and 26 percent by 2022. The state’s Bioenergy Action Plan, meanwhile, stipulates that a minimum of 40 percent of the biofuels used in California be produced within the state by 2020 and that this fraction grow to 75 percent by 2050.

Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and head of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a consortium of local research institutions and commercial partners formed two years ago and known as SD-CAB, will head the $2 million, 3-year research effort.

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“This initiative will help us reach those mandates,” said Mayfield, who noted that in addition to algae-based biofuels, the UCSD researchers will also investigate biofuels production in jatropha, a plant that produces biodiesel, and other plants. UCSD is also partnering with UC Davis and other institutions to conduct the research.

To accelerate the pace of biofuels research within the state, Mayfield said the funds from the commission’s award will be used to apply some of the same automated genetic screening techniques used by the pharmaceutical and biomedical industry for drug development to finding strains of algae and other plants with traits that can eventually make biofuels economically competitive to current transportation fuels.

“This has never been done in bioenergy research before,” he said. “This will allow us to accelerate our rate of discovery.”

The funds will also be used to train researchers that will be needed to commercially develop the biofuels industry within the state, particularly the San Diego-Imperial County region, which has the land, sunlight and other resources that make it ideal for large scale commercial production of biofuels produced from algae.

Algal biofuels research is already having a positive impact on the region’s economy. Research on algal biofuels employs 410 scientists and other workers in San Diego and provides nearly $28.8 million in payroll and $56.2 million in economic activity for the region, according to an economic assessment completed last year by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, Service Bureau.

Direct spending on algal biofuels, combined with the additional jobs and spending in related service industries, is responsible for 784 jobs, $44.6 million in wages and $108.3 million in economic output in the San Diego region, according to the SANDAG study.

A news release from the California Energy Commission issued today about this award is available at: ttp://www.energy.ca.gov/releases/2011_releases/2011-05-05_pier_research_alt_fuel_awards_ma.html


Media Contact: Kim McDonald (858) 534-7572 or kmcdonald@ucsd.edu

Comment: Stephen Mayfield (858) 822-7743 or smayfield@ucsd.edu

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