Local Scientists Growing Algae As Next Alternative Fuel

Dr. Stephen Mayfield Says Algae Biofuel Could Be Available In 10 Years

Local scientists have turned San Diego into the research capital for an alternative fuel that could be the solution for America's pain at the gas pump.

The substance known to many as "pond scum" may one day be the fuel that powers cars but in a way, it is already what puts cars in motion.

"That's what petroleum is – it's ancient algae," said Dr. Stephen Mayfield, who is one of the leading researchers trying to unlock algae's potential as an environmentally-friendly biofuel.

Mayfield said oil is nothing more than 200 million to 300 million-year-old algae pumped out of the ground. So, scientists decided to grow their own algae and extract the oil from it now instead of waiting millions of years for the process to happen naturally.

"Algae already makes oil that looks like crude oil. The oil we extract from algae goes directly into a refinery and gets converted into diesel or gasoline," said Mayfield.

The operation's potential is so great that the U.S. government and venture capitalists are investing millions of dollars into the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, which has become America's algae research hub. The center received a $4 million state grant in 2010 to train workers to join the biofuel workforce because of the industry's rapid job growth.

When asked how long it would be until drivers could fill up their tanks with algae biofuel, Mayfield responded, "We're probably 10 years away."

Many scientists said the biofuel is worth the wait because there will not be a much of choice as the world's population increases along with the need for oil.

"'Drill, baby, drill' all you want. All that does is pull it out of the ground quicker. It doesn't change how much we have there and we are done in 100 years. At our present rate of use, we are accelerating that rate," said Mayfield.

Mayfield said algae can produce about 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre in a year. It grows fast and only needs large amounts of sunlight and very little water. One of the best places to grow algae is in the desert, such as an algae research farm in Imperial Valley. The land is cheap and does not compete with food production. The algae also grows much faster than corn, which is used to make ethanol.

"The enormous advantage that we have [is] unlike corn where you can get one crop a year, we can get one crop a week," said Mayfield.

However, critics argue that algae-generated oil is too costly. Some estimated the current price of production during research is about $25 per gallon.

Mayfield said technology and innovation will drive the price down while gas prices will continue to rise. He predicts that within a decade, algae will be a less expensive alternative fuel and the answer to independence from foreign oil.

"The country that controls energy controls the world. If we cannot find a domestic source for energy to power this country, we will be in a serious problem [with] economic problems in the next 10 to 20 years," said Mayfield.

The Navy is currently testing both ships and aircraft on algae-based fuels. So far, all the tests have been successful. The Navy plans to have half its fleet on these alternative fuels within 10 years.

For more information, visit the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology website or Sapphire Energy San Diego.

Print this article Back to Top