California Green Algae Might Just be Gold

CaliforniaIn San Diego, California, researchers are seeing the potential of green algae, and investors are seeing gold. As a truly “green” industry, this algae has potential applications in everything from bio-fuel to snack foods. This little green wonder-crop might provide financial windfalls not only for Algae entrepreneurs, but for the thousands of Americans that will find jobs in the industry as it begins to boom. This “pond scum” just might be the next American cash crop. It could have an economic domino effect across the entire nation and beyond.

Sapphire, a company based in San Diego, and soon to open an office in Mexico, has reportedly received 300 million dollars in private and public funds.  About 80 million dollars has been flooded into San Diego. Even Bill Gates is building an algae farm in Texas with his company, Cascade Investment. Algae is a fast growing organism with nutritional value that feeds on sunlight. It is carbon-neutral, viable, grows in salt water, and even waste water. It is renewable in the best sense. Algae doubles in size over its life-cycle and it grows from seed to harvest in 14 days. It can be grown year-round, allowing for the production of huge amounts of the product. It also consumes a large volume of carbon dioxide, leading to speculation that it may provide ecological benefits, as well. Green algae has all the hallmarks of being the next technology to take the market by storm.

California-based Sapphire has formed a partnership with a refiner in San Antonio, Tesoro Corporation, to turn algae into crude. They are among those that are leading the charge into this emerging market. Sapphire has set a goal of 1 billion gallons of “green” crude by the year 2025. In addition, the company has signed a contract with Plillips 66, out of Houston, Texas, to combine their bio-crude with conventional crude products and research the possibilities of creating new forms of gasoline, diesel, and even jet fuel. The United States Navy has even expressed an interest in that particular application.

The California Center for Algae Biotechnology (Cal-CAB) at the University of California at San Diego, is a nationwide hub for pursuing ways to spin green algae into gold. It works to collaborate on research with universities across the country, as well as partnering with the business sector to secure grants and advance the commercialization of algae technology. Up until now, the biggest obstacle to the pursuit of the technology has been financial. With genetic modifications appearing to show promising potential for the reduction of processing costs, and many investors beginning to see the future profitability of green algae, it is likely that the money needed to take the industry to the next level just might be finding its way into the market soon.

When algae is harvested, then dried, it burns like wood. Recent developments, however, allow the algae to undergo the refining process without drying, making the process much less financially taxing. Commercially grown, algae can be inexpensive to harvest, especially with these genetic modifications. Many strains are able to produce more than ten times more fuel per acre than soybeans or corn. There’s a rush between commercial producers and labs trying to find or create strains most effective for bio-fuels. Sapphire appears to be leading the way, but the competition is right with them.

The benefit of Sapphire’s green algae process as opposed to that of other companies producing bio-fuels from algae is that the entire cell of the organism can be used. Other bio-fuels concurrently moving toward commercialization use only the harvested lipids of the organisms.  With the advancement of the technology including so much use of genetic splicing and engineering, there is some debate around the potential environmental impact, though there has not been any significant uproar. Many environmentalist see the benefits of the renewable technology over the vague concerns about the dangers of genetic interference. If further research indicates a definitive negative impact, it could be a potential downfall for investors to be wary of. Although there is argument that algae alternative fuels could compete with the environment itself, it is believed that the proper cultivation of the algae will ameliorate those concerns.

With a payroll of about 41 million dollars in the San Diego, California region alone, algae has a promising future.
San Diego is in full bloom, with forty new ventures spread around the city and algae farms being set-up. Employment is also expected to rise significantly with the growth of so many new businesses surrounding the green algae applications. San Diego is quickly being taken over by farms that are starting to cultivate. Stephen Mayfield is the director of Cal-CAB, and one of Sapphire’s founders.

“This year,” says Mayfield, “we’ll double the number of jobs in the algae bio-fuels industry.” 

Mayfield continues to say that jobs are expected to double, just not in San Diego. New facilities are opening up in Texas, Mexico , and various locations in the south-west. GreenWater Global has a plan to cultivate local crop , producing local jobs. This would eliminate the ability for these newly-created jobs to be outsourced. There is no shortage of ideas related to this developing market. Mayfield and his team are working of using green algae to reduce by as much as one-tenth, the cost of producing cutting edge cancer therapy drugs. An avenue of possibility that could possibly keep pace with the profitability estimates for many of the bio-fuel applications.

The new products being made, foods to cosmetics and many more on the horizon, represent a massive financial landscape that is waiting to be plowed. Companies like Sapphire are creating new technology at an impressive rate, and positioning themselves to reap massive financial rewards.  Sapphires President of Corporate Affairs , Tim Zensk, says that algae fuel will be available for mass consumption by 2015. With that prospect looming, the questions about green algae will no longer be about viability, but the challenge these new bio-fuels might make to the deep-rooted American addiction petroleum products. In California, where the forecast is sunny both in the meteorological and financial sense, algae just might be the new “green” gold.

By Jim Malone and Athena Jacob

Sources:

NBC

mySA

UCSanDiego

LA Times