Biofuel Development Shifting From Soil To Sea, Specifically To Marine Algae

Bell-bottoms… Designer jeans… Disco… Big hair… Gas shortages. Some icons of the 1970s are emblazoned in the memories of those old enough to remember. A few styles, to the dismay of many, have come back in vogue—oil-related crises among them. Broad anxiety over fuel manifested again in 2008, illuminating the dark side of the nation’s continued oil addiction.

Out of the ‘70s oil crisis came U.S. government funding for research evaluating the prospects of new fuel sources derived from terrestrial plants such as corn and soybeans, as well as algae. But when oil prices plummeted in the late 1980s and ‘90s, interest in such biofuel programs waned and support dried up. Now 21st century gas prices—which bolted upward to $4.50 a gallon in California earlier this year—have sparked a renaissance in the search for new biologically based energy solutions.

Today, the most fervent attention in biofuel development has shifted from soil to the sea, and specifically to marine algae. Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, along with researchers at UCSD’s Division of Biological Sciences, are part of an emerging algal biofuel consortium that includes academic collaborators, CleanTECH San Diego, regional industry representatives, and public and private partners.

Scripps scientists see algae as a “green bullet,” science and society’s best hope for a clean bioenergy source that will help loosen broad dependence on fossil fuel, counteract climate warming, and power the vehicles of the future.

As far back as he can recall, Scripps biologist Greg Mitchell has been fascinated by plants and photosynthesis. His interest lies in Earth’s basic energy patterns and how sunlight drives fundamental biological functions and energizes the world’s ecosystems.

He has built his scientific career on researching photosynthesis, the process in which the planet’s green organisms integrate sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and water to produce oxygen and carbohydrates, creating biomass.

Since he arrived at Scripps in 1987, Mitchell has kept close tabs on advancements in studies of algae as a potential source for biofuels, including landmark experiments by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research and development facility. Scripps Professor Emeritus Ralph Lewin had a hand in these efforts in the early 1980s when he successfully grew marine algae for biofuel in experimental ponds.

As funding for such projects evaporated in the 1990s, Mitchell never took his eyes off the field.

Marine algae, as Mitchell is quick to point out to anyone who asks, are the most efficient organisms on Earth for absorbing light energy and converting it into a natural biomass oil product, the biofuel equivalent of crude oil.

“Algae yields five to 10 times more bioenergy molecules per area, per time, than any terrestrial plant,” said Mitchell, a native of oil-rich Houston, Texas. “Nothing else comes close.”

morevia science news