Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Algae-based jet fuel gets DARPA funding

By Steve Hammons

Jet fuel and other fuels made from algae are being developed in San Diego. Some of the research is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the Department of Defense.

DARPA has provided $35 million to San Diego-based companies SAIC and General Atomics to pursue the creation of algae-based jet fuel.

This investment has triggered more interest in San Diego as a research hub for algae-based fuels. According to a Jan. 12, 2009, article in the San Diego Business Journal, “A consortium of academic researchers is pushing to make San Diego a hub for research on algae-based fuels, a task that, if successful, could pour more jobs and funding into the area.”

The article also noted that an associate dean at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Stephen Mayfield, is leading efforts to make the San Diego region a center for fuels created from algae.

Mayfield wants to establish joint activities that include the Scripps Research Institute, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and University of California San Diego.

A “handful of companies” in San Diego are trying to create high-octane algae-based fuels, the article explained.

The funding provided by DARPA to General Atomics will also include Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which was enlisted by General Atomics to assist in the project.


The DARPA money for SAIC could total up to $24 million to develop algae based military jet fuel JP-8 that costs $3 per gallon, according to an article on the Web site Earth2Tech.com. That is in addition to a $14.9 million contract also related to algae-based biofuels, the Web site reported.

Large energy companies like Shell and Chevron are also working on alternative jet fuels, Earth2Tech.com said.

According to Earth2Tech.com, “the military spent $6 billion on 71 million barrels of JP-8 in 2006.” The Defense Department wants to reduce that cost.

Earth2Tech.com also reported that the publication Defense News recently noted, “It’s no secret that jet fighters can fly on fuel extracted from algae. What’s not yet known, though, is how to squeeze oil from algae at a reasonable price.”

The Web site CleanTechnica.com also noted the interest in algae fuels. It reported, “SAIC says there will be two phases to the project. The first will involve refining the technology and developing lab-scale production capabilities. The second phase will involve the construction of what SAIC calls a pre-pilot scale production facility.”

CleanTechnica.com also stated, “SAIC will do the work at company facilities in Georgia, Florida, Hawaii and Texas. The company will work with a team of industrial and academic partners."

In addition, CleanTechnica.com explained, “DARPA is looking to reduce the military’s dependence on traditional forms of fuel, which makes sense from both an economic and strategic standpoint. While it remains to be seen if farmed algae provides an answer to the military’s energy needs.”


Aguaculture-based biofuels may have advantages over corn and other crop-based fuels.

Critics of corn-based biofuels have claimed that as much energy is need to fertilize, grow and harvest corn as is derived from corn-based biofuel.

Research efforts to find ways of breaking down the cellulose in other plants are underway. Progress in this area would allow many other types of high-yield plants and plant waste products to be efficiently converted to biofuels.

“PetroSun opened the first algae to biofuel facility in the U.S. last April. Such operations don’t require the crop land that corn or switchgrass use, and can produce as much as 100 times more energy per acre than crop-based biofuels,” CleanTechnica.com reported.

Growing and harvesting algae also has unique challenges.

According to an SAIC press release, “SAIC and its team will develop technologies and processes to help achieve DARPA's goal including integrating algae strain selection, water and nutrient sourcing, farming, harvesting, separation, triglyceride purification, algal oil processing, and economic modeling and analysis.”


The Web site Xeconomy.com also found the project significant. The site stated that “the San Diego region is undertaking a broad initiative to accelerate development of algae-to-biofuels technology by establishing a new organization, the San Diego Center for Algae-based Biofuels, or SD-CAB.”

Xeconomy.com that, “The center is being organized by a consortium of academic and industry researchers and represents a regional effort to make sustainable algae-based biofuel production a reality in the next 5 to 10 years.”

According to the Web site, Steve Kay, dean of biological sciences at UC San Diego, said that a “collaborative effort” getting the center going was an outcome from the non-profit membership group “Cleantech San Diego.” That group began in 2007, a combination of local government and regional economic development activities.

The Web site also claimed that “at least nine companies in the San Diego area that are working to develop algae-based substitutes for conventional petroleum products.”