Algae Biofuels: On the Road to Economic Viability or Just “On the Road”?

By Joseph Mandour on April 18, 2011

algae-frog-thumb-200x133-33972 California – Annually, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB) holds a symposium featuring a distinguished panel of speakers from academia, government labs and private research centers as well as businesses and investors interested in using algae for commercial fuel production.

This year’s Algal Biofuels Symposium will be held Friday and Saturday, April 29-30th, in the Frederic de Hoffmann Auditorium of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California and is entitled: “Algal Biofuels – Advancing to Economic Viability.”

Day one of the symposium includes science speakers from the commercial side of algae biofuels research and development. Presentations on research from the newly established Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization (CAB-Comm) will be held on the second day. The goal is to bring together academic and commercial sector scientists at the forefront of algal biofuels research to talk about the current state of algal molecular genetics, biochemistry, synthetic genomics and related technologies – all with an eye toward commercialization.

The mission of SD-CAB is to support the development of innovative, sustainable and commercially viable algae-based renewable energy sources, green chemical and biological products, water conservation and CO2 abatement in the San Diego area. Algae produce a variety of interesting molecules and fuel precursors, including triglycerides and fatty acids that can be converted to biodiesel, as well as isoprenoids and lipids that can be converted to traditional diesel fuel and gasoline. Algae can also be used to produce hydrogen or biomass, which can then be digested into natural gas.

The US consumes 140 billion gallons of liquid fuel every year. Algae are capable of producing 3,000 gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year. Algae grows well in seawater with minimal nutrient inputs and some strains can grow in desert ponds utilizing high-saline water from otherwise unusable aquifers. Competition between algae and traditional row-crop agriculture for arable land, fresh water and application of petroleum-based fertilizers could therefore be avoided. Many species of algae can even grow in wastewater from treatment plants, cleaning the water all the while.

Biofuel produced by algae approaches carbon neutrality. Since the photosynthetic organisms first remove the CO2 from the atmosphere, the overall carbon footprint is minimal. Algae production creates green-collar jobs, too. (See: http://www.cleantechsandiego.org./why-san-diego-leads/advanced-biofuels.html). The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) 2010 report on the Economic Impact of Algal Biofuel Research estimates a current payroll of approximately $28.8 million, and rising, in the San Diego region alone. (See: http://algae.ucsd.edu/_files/EconomicImpactSummary2010.pdf).

The points made above provide intellectual property lawyers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and green collar workers alike with reason to hope for cleaner fuels produced more-sustainably sometime in the near future.

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