The Culture Club: The world of algae R&D and commercialization, an inside view, in pictures.

October 13, 2010 |

What exactly does the commercialization and research effort on algal fuels look like? A collection of highly funded home brewers? Secretive temples of technology peopled with mad scientists intent on unleashing bizarre Frankenfuels on an unsuspecting public?

Well, neither. But neither is the reality well known, because generally the high-tech world of algal R&D and commercialization is off limits, for the practical reasons of accommodating visitors to labs, as well as issues of data and process protection.

What exactly do facilities like Synthetic Genomics, Sapphire Energy, SD-CAB, and the Scripps Institute – the algal bioneers at the heart of San Diego’s Biotech Barrio – look like?

Biofuels Digest’s resident algal expert and market trends columnist, Will Thurmond, reports in a three-part photojournalism series that begins today on the Algal Culture Club.

You’ve read about it – you’ve heard about it. Here it is now, concisely yet comprehensively: the world of advanced algal fuels, in pictures:

Algae’s Culture Club Part 1: San Diego
By Market Trends columnist Will Thurmond

In southern California, the “Big 4”  of San Diego’s Algae Culture Club for synthetic algae bioneers all begin with the letter S: Sapphire Energy, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Synthetic Genomics, and SD-CAB at UC-San Diego affiliated with the DOE’s CAB-COMM.

Together, the Big 4 Algae Labs in San Diego represent nearly $1 billion in funding from private and public sector investment, representing the largest algae culture club in the world. In October, Biofuels Digest market trends columnist and Algae 2020 author Will Thurmond visited these labs to gain insight on what’s happening at the birth of the “synth pop” in the algae culture labs of today – in order to optimize species of algae for commercialization tomorrow.

Sapphire Energy: The VIP of The Club

In San Diego, all algae engineering roads lead in one way or another to Sapphire Energy.  Most of these pathways originate from two key sources: the University of California at San Diego’s algae laboratory run by Dr. Steven Mayfield (where he serves as a founder and on the board of directors at Sapphire), and from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography lead by Dr. Greg Mitchell.  They are all within three miles of one another in La Jolla, CA adjacent to San Diego.

At Sapphire Energy, Tim Zenk, the VP of Public Affairs and Mike Mendez, the VP of Technology and key scientist and founder behind the original recipe of Sapphire’s “secret sauce”, provided an overview of Sapphire’s plans to move from the laboratory to the field in Las Cruces New Mexico.

Tim Zenk provided a tour of the most sophisticated algae laboratory in the world, thanks to $200 million plus (and rolling) in funding for both the laboratory and facility in La Jolla, CA near San Diego and the very large demonstration ponds now under development in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Tim Zenk proudly displays Sapphire’s trademark “Green Crude” under development, and ready to deploy at pre-commercial scale ponds in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Origin of The Species: The UCSD Algae Laboratory

In San Diego’s Algae Culture Club, Charles Darwin would trace the origin of the species – or in this case the synthetic genomic algal species –  back to Dr. Steven Mayfield at the University of California at San Diego.

Dr. Mayfield runs UCSD’s Algae Laboratory, the SD-CAB the San Diego Consortium for Algal Biology, and the DOE’s CAB-COMM or California Algal Biomass Collaborative (consisting of the University of California at San Diego, The University of California at Davis, Rutgers University and The University of North Dakota).

Dr Mayfield is also is a founding member of Sapphire Energy, and his tireless efforts to push algae forward, and to collaboratively support his colleagues world-wide is a key reason why San Diego is well known as “The Algae R&D Capital of The World.”

The USD SD-CAB and CAB-COM:HQ for testing algae cultures from the US DOE, DOD, DOA, and dozens of collaborative partners world-wide.

Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Dr. Greg Mitchell is probably the most famous among phycologists (algae scientists) world-wide for his long-term research and advanced applied science experiments on all forms of algae species: green algae, brown algae, blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), and macro algae also known as seaweed.

Dr. Mitchell’s pioneering work in the field of algal biology adjacent to the Pacific ocean brings in all kinds of species from PhDs who surf the waves between classes, and world-class scientists and biologists from around the globe.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography is also a key test laboratory for pushing the envelope on applied science in synthetic biology, and supporting the US Departments of Energy, Defense and Agriculture in energy security, national security, and food security – both for the US, and in leading the world in advanced applied algal microbiology.

Algae culture collections at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

One of the Culture Labs at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Synthetic Genomics: The New Kid on The Block

There are $600 million reasons we could reason why Synthetic Genomics is a key player In San Diego’s Algae Culture Club.  The first reason is the largest oil and gas company in the world, Exxon-Mobil, has commited the largest amount of money of any oil and gas firm in an R&D collaborative with Synthetic Genomics to leverage genetic pioneer Craig Venter’s knowledge of applied science in molecular engineering.

At the time of the visit in San Diego, Exxon-Mobil was already on site at SG.  A lab tour was unavailable, as the PR and the R&D folks at Synthetic Genomics were very busy in meetings with Exxon, cleaning up the labs, tidying up the greenhouse, etc.  An insider at SG told the Digest that Craig Venter and SG’s staff are fast at work in collaborative R&D efforts with Exxon to create designer hydrocarbon (drop-in fuels and chemicals) molecules, and green crude.  However, SG’s execs were not able to get permission from Exxon-Mobil to make a tour during this very private “honeymoon” phase of the R&D Collaborative with XOM.

Algae Culture – Catch The Wave

As you enter and exit Sapphire Energy’s lobby, the Sapphire surfboard is a strident reminder you are right offshore of the beaches where petroleum crude oil originated hundreds of millions of years ago from algae.  Similarly, right before we entered the UC San Diego Algae Culture Laboratory and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography we saw several surfers (and PhD microbiologists in the lab) riding the waves, out collecting species between classes, and returning with seaweed and algae samples for testing.

San Diego remains at the top of the heap as the Algae R&D Capital of The World for algae culture labs supporting commercialization and energy security efforts world-wide.  

The Digest will continue the Algae Culture Club series, with interviews from columnist Will Thurmond and profiles of key bioneers in synthetic biology to produce advanced biofuels, drop-in fuels, biochemicals, biopolymers, specialty chemicals, livestock feed, and pharmaceutical remedies from algae.  

This article was written by Will Thurmond, and includes excerpts of detailed company profiles and emerging market insights from the forthcoming study Algae 2020: Vol 2, published by Emerging Markets Online  Will Thurmond is the CEO of biofuels business development consulting and market research firm Emerging Markets Online, and serves as an Independent Energy Advisor to the National Algae Association, and start-up incubator Houston Technology Center.

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