Great (Algae) Expectations, and San Diego’s Plans for Creating a Big Green Cluster

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toward private sector research on algal biofuels would be expected to generate $15 million in economic activity and nearly $7.75 million in payroll—enough for 100 employees in the San Diego region.

San Diego’s algae biofuels leadership has also wisely cast a broad net for its coalition, for example, by enlisting economic development officials in Imperial County, a sparsely populated desert region to the east with 25 percent unemployment. Intense sunlight makes the Imperial Valley ideal for raising algae, and the slimy green pond scum grows rapidly—even in pools of brackish water on desert land deemed unfit for farming.

The juxtaposition of a nearby, undeveloped desert with San Diego’s biotech industry and academic research institutions “is perfect” for creating a regional algae biotechnology industry, said Tony Haymet, director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Yet it also was apparent yesterday that SD-CAB is a “virtual” consortium because there is no there there, at least not yet. Mayfield explained that the purpose of the center is twofold: To train the next generation of scientists, technicians, and laboratory workers that the biofuels industry will need, and to collaborate on algae research efforts with other scientific institutions and companies like Sapphire Energy. Funding for SD-CAB is based on expectations that political leaders in San Diego and California can claim a portion of $800 million in economic stimulus funding to be allocated through the U.S. Department of Energy. “We’re also asking for corporate contributions,” Mayfield said.

The question, though, is whether San Diego can muster the political clout to get federal funding, which appears to be the only source of sufficient capital in this recession. Mayfield said SD-CAB intends to use San Diego’s recent campaign to win state funding for stem cell research as its model.

“What today is about is letting the world know that we are now organized to compete for federal funding and that we are collaborating in our research and development efforts,” said Mayfield.

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

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