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UCSD professor sees blooming future for algae

Other possibilities involve food, medicine

“I think if you can make rainbow-colored algae you can make anything,” said a University of California, San Diego biology professor and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology at a UCSD Economics Roundtable Wednesday morning.

Genetically engineering the rainbow colors is just to prove a point, but Stephen Mayfield added algae has the potential to replace and reach price parity with several of the world’s most vital and in-demand resources -- petroleum, food and drugs -- more sustainably than any alternatives.

On the fuel front, which Mayfield said represents the cheapest but largest market, there are already commercial options for gasoline from algae, granted at a high price.

Sapphire Energy -- a San Diego-based company that Mayfield founded with a 100-acre facility in Las Cruces, N.M. -- produces about 100 barrels of oil per day, which is able to go straight into the Phillips 66 refinery to be turned into diesel and gasoline.

By separating the lipid portion of algae from the protein and rest of the bloom, the lipid is essentially the same as crude petroleum

“The crude oil from algae is exactly what we’re pumping out of the ground -- the difference is that the fossilized stuff is a little more complex because it’s been baked under high temperatures for a few hundred million years, but essentially they have the same exact backbone,” Mayfield said.

Currently, Sapphire Energy is able to produce a barrel of petroleum for $240, but is eyeing the $100 per barrel that’s needed to be competitive with fossil fuels.

How soon that parity is possible depends on when a production-scale facility can come online, which depends on when someone or some organization is willing to cough up the initial $600 million needed to build it -- which Mayfield notes is a drop in the bucket for an energy industry that spent $175 billion on fracking last year.

“I think what’ll happen is when these things launch commercially in 2018, it’ll still be $200 a barrel, but then we’ll make a 5 percent improvement every year over the next 10 years to drive that down.”

The other key to positioning algae as a viable alternative to fossil fuels is domesticating the crop, just like humans did with corn, modifying it over 7,000 years to the B73 strain that keeps 7.1 billion humans alive today.

“We know how to do this, we just have to do it in a much shorter timeframe, but I think we can,” Mayfield said. “And in the meantime we have to make some products that we can actually sell, because people just are not going to tolerate $200 a barrel algae oil, no matter how cool it is, if they can buy a $100 a barrel fossil fuel.”

Turns out, Mayfield is working on this sellable products mission as well, and is finding success on two main fronts: colostrum bacteria and cancer drugs.

Colostrum bacteria is produced during a short timeframe in new mothers’ milk and has numerous benefits for newborns and adults alike.

Bovine colostrum bacteria -- which can essentially prevent bacterial diarrhea when taken prophylactically -- is available on the market, but for a pretty penny because of the very limited supply as it is only produced in the first 24 hours after a calf’s birth.

“So we had the idea, since there’s a limited supply of this and these proteins work fantastically and are orally available, why don’t you express colostrum proteins in algae and see if we can feed that algae to organisms and get the same benefits?” Mayfield said.

The answer: yes, you can. The first such protein that Mayfield and co. produced they call mammary-associated amyloid protein, and when they gave it to 15 young pigs and then challenged them with bacterial diarrhea, not a single pig became ill -- the algae-produced colostrom bacteria colonized the gut wall to prevent diarrhea.

The applications and market are huge: Mayfield started another company called Triton Health and Nutrition, which has already signed contracts with Mars and Nestle to integrate this product into dog food, which has become an early-adopting market.

However Mayfield said this development is particularly exciting given its potential role in humans, with dehydration caused by bacterial diahrrea the No. 1 killer of children worldwide.

The second front, cancer drugs, has an equally important mission, and an equally large market size.

Mayfield said since it’s possible to make eukaryotic (cells with a nucleus) toxins inside of the algae, they are able to couple cancer antibody fragments to algae cells and direct them against a cancer cell antigen.

“This is the most potent anticancer drug that we have ever seen,” he said. “And we are out-and-out trying to raise funds trying to get this commercialized.”

As with colostrum, there are some variations of this concept in the market already, but at a going rate of $116,000 for four injections.

“It’s the most expensive drug ever produced, but it’s super effective -- it’s curing 85 to 90 percent of people who are being treated with it. So it’s a fantastic drug but really expensive, and we think we can impact that as well.”

In addition to all of these uses, Mayfield said algae also has a possible spot in the food department.

He discussed the relationship and very high correlation between the price of oil and price of food, and then the price of food with recent riots in the Middle East.

“It’s a little ironic -- the countries that brought us huge quantities of fossil fuel are now the ones that are really suffering,” Mayfield said. “I have had in my office four times over the last year delegations from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar or one of the other oil producing countries, and what do they want? They don’t want energy from algae -- they want food from algae.”

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Sapphire Energy

Company Website

3115 Merryfield Row.
San Diego , CA 92121

Sapphire Energy Executive(s):

Jason Pyle

  • Chief Executive Officer

Cynthia Warner

  • Chairwoman, President

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