Farming For Algae

Joanna Schroeder

Steve Mayfield, the Director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, believes that we need new sources and new revenue streams for agriculture. The most important element of the crop, says Mayfield, is that it can’t complete with existing agriculture. His answer? Algae.

Algae, says Mayfield, is going to be the next big agricultural crop. The only difference is algae grows on water, whereas traditional ag crops grow on land.

Today, researchers across the country are studying algae to produce fuel and feed and maybe even some day fiber, and Mayfield told me during an interview as part of a San Diego Algae Tour, that what we’re looking for in algae is exactly what they worry about in ag.

There are four things that Mayfield and his team are focusing on in their algae research: growth rate, the product being made, crop protection and harvestability. For example, when his team is growing algae, they need it to grow fast, produce a high amount of lipids, be free of disease, and be harvested as cheaply as possible.

I asked Mayfield when we would see full-scale deployment of algae fuel and he noted, “In this country, it took 100 years to reach the scale of ag we’re at right now. It’s not going to take 100 years to get to that scale in algae because the need is much great now.” You would typically build up your technology as the population increases, continued Mayfield, but the population increase is here now and we’re running out of fuel.

Mayfield estimates that we’re ten years away, and approximately $10 billion from commercial production but he is confident we’ll get there.

You can view pictures from my algae trip in my San Diego Algae Tour Photo Album.

algae, biofuels, Research