General Atomics, SAIC to explore
algae fuel for less
Dec 27, 2008 - Mike Freeman - SignOnSanDiego.com
Two San Diego-based defense contractors have received
federal grants totaling nearly $35 million to drive
down the cost of making jet fuel from algae.
General Atomics and SAIC received the contracts
from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, or DARPA. It is the military's research
and development funding arm and is seeking biofuel
alternatives for military aircraft, which make up
a significant percentage of the $6 billion the military
spends on fuel annually.
A team led by General Atomics of San Diego – a
privately held company best known as the maker of
the Predator unmanned aircraft – got a $19.9 million
grant. SAIC, a wide-ranging defense research and
engineering firm also known as Science Applications
International Corp., leads a group that received
It is unclear whether SAIC's research work will
be done in San Diego. A spokeswoman for the company
declined to discuss the grant or SAIC's partners.
Some biofuels scientists found the SAIC award puzzling
since the company isn't known to have an active
biofuels research program.
General Atomics began researching biofuels at its
San Diego campus about two years ago and now has
a team of about 20 researchers on the project.
David Hazlebeck, program manager for General Atomics,
said algae are a promising source of biofuel because
they can conceivably meet all U.S. oil needs using
a relatively small amount of acreage – and acreage
that generally is not productive for other crops
such as corn or soybeans.
Although small, algae generate more oil per individual
cell than most plants. The simple organisms are
essentially made up of oil and protein, said Hazlebeck.
“Where with other materials you might get 50 to
100 gallons (of vegetable oil) per acre per year,
with algae you're going to range from 5,000 to 15,000
gallons per acre per year,” Hazlebeck said.
Of course, algae grow in water. But scientists
say that's not necessarily a problem since the organisms
can be grown in brackish – or salty – water and
would not compete for dwindling supplies of fresh
Federal studies have already proven that jet fuel
can be made from the vegetable oil. The problem
is the cost, which can be as high as $30 per gallon.
“That's the object of the DARPA award – bring
that cost down from $30 per gallon to about $1 per
gallon,” Hazlebeck said.
Several companies are looking at algae as a potential
biofuel locally, most of them small, private firms.
One of the larger private companies conducting this
research is Sapphire Energy.
Sapphire, which raised $100 million in venture
capital from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners and
others, aims to use a host of means, including possible
genetic engineering, to try to produce not just
vegetable oil but a more refined biofuel from algae.
This more refined fuel would need little or no
additional processing to work. Efforts to reach
Sapphire were unsuccessful.
The DARPA-funded projects are not using genetic
engineering to alter the algae. They aim to produce
vegetable oil that would have to be further refined
into jet fuel.
General Atomics will work with several partners
on its contract, including the Scripps Institution
of Oceanography in San Diego, Hawaii BioEnergy in
Honolulu and the University of North Dakota's Energy
and Environmental Research Center.
Although it will look at all aspects of algae production
to lower costs, the General Atomics team plans to
focus on increasing the yield per acre.
During the first 18 months of the project, teams
from General Atomics and SAIC will try to get costs
of algae-based oil down to $2 a gallon. In the following
18 months, they will push to drop it to $1 a gallon
and build a 30-to 50-acre demonstration facility.
Mike Freeman: (760) 476-8209; firstname.lastname@example.org