Algae-Based Biofuels Have Overwhelming Support in California

A new biofuel is now undergoing testing through the U.S. Navy.  The bioengineered fuel comes from a genetically modified species of green algae that a team of scientists at Solazyme have constructed and fermented in San Francisco, California.  The algae are raised in fermentation tanks filled with switch grass, sugar beets, and other plants, where the microorganisms are able to convert the stored plant energy into a crude oil.  The oil is then refined and is currently being tested as a jet and warship fuel.

At the beginning of September, the Navy placed an order for over 150,000 gallons of the Solazyme fuel, qualifying the company to receive a $21.8 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to build a new refinery.  This push from the defense organizations of the U.S. government are likely to boost production up to a commercial level over the course of the next two years.

On a related note, with a big push towards algae-based biofuels for future power generation, there needs to be sufficient training for both researchers and technicians in the industry.  A handful of California-based colleges and universities, including UC San Diego will begin to offer the necessary coursework to help support the growing workforce.  Executives from companies venturing into biofuels met earlier this week to help shape the academic curriculum.

The hope is to get interested students properly trained as the new jobs become available.  The state of California has provided a $4 million grant to cover this first round of industry training.  While the majority of participating schools are in the San Diego area, the programs will eventually be extended to colleges in other communities.

While a number of green energy companies can accommodate the research and development in their own laboratories, the “large scale commercialization will be done in the Imperial Valley,” said Jason Anderson, VP for Cleantech San Diego.  Right now the focus is on optimizing fuel production from the oil that the colonies of algae produce.

Retired Admiral Dennis McGinn was also present at the meeting between executives and academics.  He gave a speech advocating energy alternatives to fossil fuels.  He feels that San Diego’s push into algae biofuels is “exactly what is needed by the United States… to start diversifying our portfolio of energy, particularly liquid fuel.”

With support from the U.S. Navy as well as investments from large oil companies, the algae industry is positioned for immediate growth.  The already measurable progress is expected to continue exponentially over the next formative years for the industry.