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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Bio-fuels Accelerator

Soaring gas prices, global warming and energy insecurity are all consequences of our overdependence on foreign oil. But biologists at UC San Diego are developing alternatives to our current transportation dilemmas.

With the help of a recent $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission, scientists will be able to accelerate research over the next three years, and will broaden their efforts to develop new algae-based biofuels, investigating jatropha, as well as other plants that produce biodiesel.

The goal of the California Energy Commission's initiative is to develop a variety of what it calls "drop-in," sustainable fuels. The state's Alternative Fuels Plan mandates that 9 percent of conventional fuels be replaced with alternative fuels by 2012; 11 percent by 2017; and 26 percent by 2022. The state's Bioenergy Action Plan, meanwhile, stipulates that a minimum of 40 percent of the biofuels used in California be produced within the state by 2020 and that this fraction grow to 75 percent by 2050.

"This initiative will help us reach those mandates," says Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UCSD and head of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a consortium of local research institutions and commercial partners, who will oversee the three-year research effort.

Mayfield says the funds from the commission's award will be used to apply some of the same automated genetic screening techniques used by the pharmaceutical and biomedical industry for drug development toward finding strains of algae and other plants with traits that can eventually make biofuels economically competitive as transportation fuels.
"This has never been done in bioenergy research before," he says. "And it will allow us to accelerate our rate of discovery."

The campus is also partnering with UC Davis and other institutions to conduct the research.

—Kim McDonald