October 10, 2009

BIOTECH: Conference on algae highlights fast-growing sector

Hundreds of scientists and business representatives are meeting in San Diego this week to discuss a bright new prospect for renewable energy and clean water ---- ocean and pond algae.

These microscopic organisms, or rather, those who hope to commercialize them for fuel and water purification, have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars. One company, alone, Synthetic Genomics, has scored a deal worth up to $300 million, from energy giant ExxonMobil.

The commercial investment, along with San Diego's biotech expertise, has made the area into a top competitor to become the hub of algal research for oil and gas substitutes, and water treatment.

The conference, which kicked off Wednesday, is sponsored by the Algal Biomass Organization, a trade group. Its schedule includes notable speakers and panelists from San Diego's budding algal biofuels industry, including Synthetic Genomics, Sapphire Energy, Kent BioEnergy and The Scripps Research Institute. About 700 people are attending, the organization said.

Perhaps the most notable scheduled keynote speaker, J. Craig Venter, the biotech pioneer and founder of Synthetic Genomics, did not attend because of a scheduling conflict: He was in Washington to receive a National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.

Algal technology is developing across the country, and indeed the world. One exhibitor, Algaewheel Technologies LLC, sells equipment to grow algae for fuel and clean the wastewater it's grown in.

"The benefits to that are the economics are much better because your system that's growing the algae is being installed and paid for, at least in part, by a wastewater treatment facility," said Mark A Drewes, chief financial officer for Indianapolis-based Algaewheel.

Water can be purified with the algae to be safe enough to drink, Drewes said.

"You can give it complete treatment, the same as with traditional technologies," Drewes said. Algaewheel can be reached at www.algaewheel.com.

The Algae Biomass Summit continues through Friday. More information about the Algae Biomass Organization can be found at www.algalbiomass.org.

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