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 efforts on advancing the science and technology in six specific areas to significantly increase algal biofuels production: Algal Biology; Cultivation; Algal Harvesting and Lipids Extraction; Converting Lipids to Fuel; Valuable Co-Products; and Sustainability Analysis. There are two major hurdles in particular, though, that pose the highest risks, and where Olivares said he wants to focus his resources:

—Increasing algae production and yield of lipids (natural fats, oils, and waxes) in sufficient quantities. The goal is to produce more than 20 gdw/m2 (grams dry weight per square meter) of algae daily, with 50 percent total lipids (by dry weight.)

—Developing technologies that efficiently harvest and “dewater” the algae, and ways to extract lipids from algal cells, with a goal of harvesting algae at a cost of 51 cents per standard barrel and extracting 15 gallons of lipids per minute.

The NAABB, which is led by the non-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center near St. Louis, Mo., includes 14 companies, 17 universities, and two national laboratories (Los Alamos and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). Olivares told me the consortium is getting about $49 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over the next three years (including $44 million in federal stimulus funding announced in January), along with an estimated $20 million in “cost sharing” contributions from industry and academic institutions.

So what happens if a group working with the alliance makes an innovative breakthrough?

Olivares told me that has already been worked out: The innovators’ institution retains the intellectual property rights. A breakthrough must be disclosed to other NAABB members within 60 days and any NAABB member that needs the technology to do its own R&D must be allowed to use it under a non-exclusive license.

“Our consortium really is geared to take multiple technologies through similar research and development paths,” Olivares says. “For us, success is getting a company to a point where it is more commercially viable than it is today.”

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.