It was more than the sunny weather that brought 700 scientists, financiers, entrepreneurs and policymakers to San Diego recently for the third annual Algae Biomass Summit — the world’s pre-eminent event dedicated to the development of algae-based solutions to global energy, environmental and economic issues. With several leading algae companies and organizations already calling the area home, San Diego was a logical choice to host this year’s Algae Biomass Summit.
San Diego should be applauded for its leading role in an industry that is creating jobs, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy, and working toward clean, American-made, renewable energy sources.
Sapphire Energy has tried to maintain a relatively low profile since it established its headquarters in San Diego—especially since last fall when the media seized on reports that Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment had joined a $100 million secondary round of venture funding for the algae biofuels startup.
So when Sapphire opened its San Diego headquarters for a public tour during the Algae Biomass Summit that was held here earlier this month, I jumped at the opportunity. The venture-backed company maintains a 70,000-square-foot facility on La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Mesa, and now has about 120 employees. The company’s labs look like a lot of other biotech labs in San Diego, aside from all the gyrating machines with flasks full of gently swirling emerald-green fluid. But there were two particularly interesting factoids about Sapphire that I learned during the tour.
The Algaeus, a vehicle that runs on algae-based fuel, recently finished a cross-country trip to promote the film “FUEL,” and now will be featured on a national college educational tour.
The car, based on a 2008 Toyota Prius with an added battery pack, a plug and an advanced energy management system, finished its 10-day tour from San Francisco to New York City on Sept. 18. The unmodified engine got an average 147 miles per gallon (mpg) city in plug-in electric hybrid mode (PHEV) and 52 mpg highway in hybrid mode, according to Sapphire Energy, the company that made the fuel blend.
Ubiquitous and easy to grow, algae has long been a promising biomass-to-fuel candidate in the eyes of researchers. Now algae is a burgeoning sector in biofuels with several high-profile start-ups, including Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, and the interest of big-time investors like Bill Gates and ExxonMobil. Of course, hurdles still exist to make a competitive fuel. Algal biofuels still cost too much to produce—over $8 a gallon (pdf), according to the DOE. Furthermore, most existing strains do not yield oil in the quantities needed to quickly scale up to commercial production of biofuels. Companies also need to worry about contaminating local ecosystems and the amount of water needed to grow cultures in large batches. Despite these challenges inroads—and actual fuel—are being made in the nascent field. Here are 5 projects leading the pack today.
As America’s dependence on foreign oil continues to grow, investors are looking to alternative fuels to usher in a new age of energy usage.
And San Diego is emerging as a leader in the clean technology sector, with 672 companies focused on clean tech in the region.
The significant increase in activity was a highlight of an event last week kicking off the 2009 Algae Biomass Summit held in San Diego Oct. 7-9.
The event was hosted by CleanTech San Diego, a nonprofit organization focused on accelerating local leadership in the clean tech sector.
San Diego is such a heavyweight in biofuel research that a cluster of labs and experimentation sites that cropped up in La Jolla in recent years has taken on the name Biotech Beach.
It’s home to dozens of companies collaborating on projects to produce marketable fuel products from sources ranging from corn to algae to cooking oil.
Sapphire Energy, which intends to be the leading producer of renewable petrochemical products derived from algae, is building, with the cooperation of a number of partners, a 300-acre demonstration Integrated Algal Biorefinery designed to produce renewable gasoline, diesel and jet economically from an algal feedstock.
Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle, who has had a hand in start-ups in medical engineering and biotechnology, now is developing algae-based fuels that have already propelled planes and a car.
SAN DIEGO — Tim Zenk is surrounded by green. In a lab near California’s coast, shades of emerald, lime and chartreuse fill petri dishes, beakers, 14-foot plastic bags and long swirling pools.
To many, algae is little more than pond scum, a nuisance to swimmers and a frustration to boaters.
But to a growing community of scientists and investors in Southern California, there is oil locked in all that slimy stuff, and several dozen companies are racing to try to figure how best to unleash it and produce an affordable biofuel.