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Monday, July 26, 2010

San Diego's biofuels effort

One of the two proposals to win the maximum $4 million grant from the Green Innovation Challenge was the San Diego Biofuels Initiatives, a partnership headquartered at UCSD. While I was in San Diego earlier this month, I was fortunate to meet with Prof. Stephen Mayfield of UCSD, one of the prime movers behind the initiative as well as development of San Diego’s nascent biofuel industry.

In addition to being a chaired professor in the biology department, Dr. Mayfield also is the cofounder and scientific advisor for Sapphire Energy, one of the region’s major biofuel startups. (The other major local firm is Synthetic Genomics, which has a famed genomics pioneer as a cofounder and Exxon Mobil as a major joint venture partner.).

Most importantly, Dr. Mayfield is director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, which is the hub of the state-funded GIC project. The SD-CAB itself is a partnership of UCSD, Scripps Institute of Oceanography†, the Salk Institute and San Diego State. († Not to be confused with Scripps Clinic or Mayfield’s former employer, the Scripps Research Institute).

Three things stand out from the San Diego project and Mayfield's vision.

First, San Diego already has leading academic research, a nascent industry and strong ties between the two. The biofuels effort builds on the established biotech infrastructure — even more than solar PV builds on the semiconductor infrastructure. The local trade association, Biocom, established a subgroup to help support biofuel collaboration.

The biotech industry has deep roots in San Diego, beginning with the 1978 founding of the pioneering startup Hybritech. The biotech industry was largely a UCSD spinoff, and is responsible for the emergence of a local venture capital industry. (My own study of the parallel telecom cluster suggests that it is smaller and less durable than biotech).

The region’s efforts to become a biofuel hub are well along. At almost the same time that the state funded the worker training project, the SD-CAB got another $9 million in US Department of Energy funding for biofuel research — one of three projects funded nationwide by $24 million in Federal algae fuel research.

The second unusual point is that the project has an integrated educational strategy that combines efforts of three institutions of higher learning:
  • Biomass certificate: an AA at Miracosta College for those involved in growing biofuels
  • Biotech certificate: BS at San Diego State
  • Crop management: BS (biology) at UCSD
  • Professional master's at UCSD for entry-level researchers
and also possibly a bachelor’s degree for chemical engineers who work in biofuel refining. While UCSD is working closely with local industry, these graduates will also go to work at refineries and biofuel farms across the Southwest.

Finally, the goal of this effort is not to train some students over a two year period. It also goes beyond the necessary task of creating a curriculum and degree programs. Instead, the goal is to create a permanent educational infrastructure that supports industry needs in San Diego and elsewhere. As Mayfield told me:
We're not training 500 people, we're building a program that can train 50-100/year indefinitely, and can scale. We're building a program that can train for years.
Dr. Mayfield is quite optimistic about the pace of the science, the business and the fuel production. The DOE “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap” is perhaps more cautious, listing challenges in scaling up cultivation, processing and refining.

Still, liquid fuels have the advantage of leveraging an existing distribution infrastructure to meet existing demand. The algae biofuels do not have the problems of ethanol absorbing water or being too corrosive for existing pipelines, tanks and vehicles.

Even more importantly, the algae-based biofuels avoid the problem of substituting fuel for food that our current ethanol subsidy policy engenders.

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