A Mini-Cluster of Algae-to-Biofuels Technology Blooms in San Diego

When I sat down recently with Mario Larach, he was still excited about a U.S. Department of Energy workshop he had attended on algae biofuels earlier this month at the University of Maryland. As the co-founder of a local biofuel startup called Kai BioEnergy, Larach has been tracking a nationwide surge of interest in algae-to-biofuel technology as he seeks venture funding for his company.

It’s an exciting idea—producing fuel from pond scum—but it has some practical problems that Larach and others are still trying to solve. A key issue, underscored in this DOE fact sheet, is that algal biofuels produced in large volumes with today’s technology would cost more than $8 a gallon at the gas pump, based on conservative estimates. Larach told me a lot of people in the field have been using “photobioreactors” and transparent piping systems to grow algae, which are both costly to set up and to operate. “The gurus in the space say the only way to do this economically is to grow algae in open space,” in shallow ponds, Larach says.

The DOE has identified a variety of areas where advances are needed, including algal-biofuels process research, production, and integration, not to mention scaling up pilot plants and demonstration projects to industrial operations. Larach says growing a particular species of algae in open ponds poses other problems. One is the challenge of eliminating “weed algae” that seems to infiltrate ponds. Another stems from often-strident ecological and political opposition to projects that call for cultivating a genetically modified algae in open ponds.

For the record, Larach says Kai BioEnergy has been using only native strains of algae in developing its biofuel technology. Still, he says, “Right now, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have a lot of issues, including EPA issues,” referring to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Solving such issues won’t be simple, but Larach says San Diego is emerging as a capital for algae-to-biofuels technology. “If you did a map of the world in terms of where all the activity and the microalgae breakthroughs are, it’s right here,” Larach says. His list of San Diego’s expertise includes:

—Stephen Mayfield, a cell biologist at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla who also is a co-founder of Sapphire Energy, which established its corporate headquarters in San Diego (read on for more on Sapphire).

—B. Gregory Mitchell, another scientist who is regarded as a leader in … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

Trending on Xconomy

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

6 responses to “A Mini-Cluster of Algae-to-Biofuels Technology Blooms in San Diego”

  1. Oh well another algae startup.

    http://www.biodieselfever.com – look for algae

  2. Tony Rusi says:

    Valcent CEO Dr. Glenn Kertz of Anthony Texas claims a world record of 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year equivalent, with his closed loop, continously harvesting, vertical photo-bioreactor greenhouses. I have also seen cost estimates of around 2 dollars per gallon with an exponential drop every year. Charlie Trafford of Burnie, Tasmania claims he is making biodiesel from algae oil for 30 cents per liter at home. With a 300 mpg diesel car most people would only have to make around two gallons a week.
    But what if “algae trees” were possible? Google Prototaxites. Take a look at Paul Stamet’s TED video, 6 ways mushrooms can save the world.

  3. BERNE CLARK says:

    What does algae eat in order to grow
    How is carbon dioxide held or dissolved in the water in order to promote the algaes growth
    Will CO2 evaporate when the ponds are heated during the hot periods of the day
    How do open ponds deal with rogue/ naturally occurring air borne algae pollution..
    How resistant to air borne pesticides or mold or fungi are the open ponds
    Is water pollution and excessive amounts of nitrogen a threat to open pond algae production…
    Thx BC

  4. jamooon says:

    Neste oil has a number of bio-diesel production. they will be able to use a number of oil production. This is a good addition to it. can be a good deal. if the cella able to produce oil cheaply then this spawns a lot of money cella for. neste-oli products is known to be the best in europe.

  5. Željko Serdar says:

    All the best from Croatia, EU. CCRES ALGAE TEAM