National Alliance Focuses on Turning Algal Biofuels Into Viable Industry

It was just over a year ago that some of San Diego’s biggest life sciences research institutions announced the formation of SD-CAB, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, amid some outsized calls to make San Diego the top of the mountain in biofuels development. Since then, we’ve continued to see occasional flurries of activity, including startup financings, industry partnerships, and development plans.

At another level, though, a lot of hard work remains to make algal biofuels a reality. An all-day symposium held last month at the Salk Institute highlighted some of the basic R&D that still needs to get done. A two-day Algae World Summit that begins today at the Del Mar Hilton is more of the same, with sessions on “real world” experiences in growing algae, “meeting the challenges” of growing algae in industrial quantities, and practical considerations in project development.

Jose Olivares outlined some of these technical issues for me when he came through San Diego a few weeks ago. Olivares, who was a deputy biosciences leader at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is now executive director of, the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB), a consortium of industry, academic, and government researchers. Locally, the alliance includes UC San Diego, as wells as some scientists from HR BioPetroleum and Kai BioEnergy.

Basically, what Olivares told me is that while it is scientifically possible to make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from algae, a host of complex engineering and production problems must be solved before algal biofuels production can become an economically viable industry.

“Our mission is to cover innovative technologies that can be brought to bear on any and all parts of algal biofuels production,” Olivares said. Officially, the NAABB’s mission is to lay the technical foundations for a scalable, responsible, and affordable renewable biofuels industry. “We can bring basic scientific principles to prove that the technologies work, and if they don’t work, to establish under what conditions they don’t work,” Olivares said.

As a national alliance, Olivares said the NAABB is focusing its … Next Page »

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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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4 responses to “National Alliance Focuses on Turning Algal Biofuels Into Viable Industry”

  1. anonymous says:

    This is absurd. The US has spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research and has not commercialized anything. US companies are building commercial-scale algae production plants today with all off-the-shelf existing technology.

  2. In response to the anonymous comment: the total US investment (by both industry and the government) in developing the algae industry is nearly $2.5 B. This number represents both R&D and development of commercialization efforts. It may seem high, but remember the US alone consumes over 200 billion gallons per year of transportation fuels. It seems to me that replacing a significant portion of that industry with biofuels will require more than $2.5 B in investments from industry and/or the government.
    To the final point from the anonymous comment: the industry players going into the algae commercialization efforts recognize the need for new innovation in order to make the industry viable. For example, there is a $600 M investment by Exxon Mobil in a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics to develop algal organisms with high biomass and lipid (fuel) productivity. Other examples are Sapphire, Solix Biofuels, Chevron, HRBiopetroleum, etc. etc. etc.