Algae industry growing, transforming

Back in 2009, San Diego played host to the Algae Biomass Summit, a unique gathering of entrepreneurs, scientists and investors looking for ways to transform a then-obscure technology — algae cultivation — into a dynamic industry of the future.

Today, the city is preparing to once again host this event, with hundreds of global algae experts descending into the city Sept. 29 through Oct. 2. Much has changed in the industry since 2009.

All too often, algae are associated with negative events (i.e. algal blooms in Toledo, Ohio, earlier this summer). But algae are incredible organisms with nearly limitless potential to solve some of our world’s most pressing problems.

Algae grow prolifically on small amounts of land, don’t compete with traditional agriculture, can recycle nutrients, and can be harvested in days rather than months. Their oil and protein content mean they can be processed into an endless variety of products.

It’s never been more important to double-down on research, development and commercialization of algae-based products. Here in California, we’re reminded on a daily basis about the threat to our economy and very way of life by years of prolonged drought. Algae is part of the solution.

Look what’s happening in Imperial Valley as high-tech algae farmers are growing algae that are converted into food products using salt water. That same concept can be modified to create animal feed and low-carbon biofuels.

Other companies such as Accelergy are developing algae-derived bio-fertilizer that can reduce reliance on fossil-derived fertilizer while simultaneously restoring soil ecosystems plagued by drought.

Today, local companies like Sapphire Energy, Cellana and Earthrise Nutritionals are breaking through technology barriers, perfecting harvesting techniques and operating production facilities that prove a robust commercial algae industry is not only possible, but is inevitable.

A number of local partners coordinate the EDGE Initiative — Educating and Developing workers for the Green Economy — which is providing certifications in the technical skills that will be needed as more commercial production comes online.

Research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC San Diego has produced startling advances — opening the door for algae to become a low-cost source of energy, food and even pharmaceuticals.

Strong bipartisan support for this kind of innovation continues to come from Washington, D.C. U.S. Navy ships and aircraft from San Diego have successfully demonstrated the performance of algae-derived fuels, and just this month the Department of Energy announced new funding to projects that continue to drive down the price of algae-derived fuels.

All told, just five years after the last algae conference in San Diego, this industry is responsible for 1,020 jobs, $80 million in wages and more than $175 million of economic output to the San Diego region alone.

This is only the very beginning. Companies are now designing algal oils for use in the food products industry. Firms are marketing nutraceuticals, drugs, cosmetics and health supplements derived from algae. Some of the most popular consumer health juices, including those from Odwalla and Naked, contain algae (spirulina). Animal feed companies are looking to algae-derived proteins for their products.

With a simple diet of sunlight and carbon dioxide, algae can be processed into molecules indispensable for modern life.

The technology, the engineering, the workforce — all are coming together to make algae-derived fuels and other products cost-competitive with what we have been using for the last century. A better future is coming together in the algae industry.

We’re looking forward to bringing the Algae Biomass Summit back to San Diego. At the largest gathering of algae professionals in the world industry leaders will be learning, experiencing and networking, closing deals on commercial-scale production facilities, discussing how to protect new IP, or inking partnerships, with consumer-facing companies looking to lock down supplies of the feedstock of the future.

San Diego is globally recognized as the hub of the algae industry in the U.S., and we are proud that for a few days the major leaders in the global industry will experience what makes the San Diego region such a great place to be — especially if you’re in the algae business.

Anderson is president of Cleantech San Diego. Carr is executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization.

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