A cluster of scientists around San Diego believe tiny marine algae are the world’s best solution to developing a clean energy source that could someday power the vehicles of the future and dramatically lessen the United States’ dependence on foreign oil sources.
Kristian Gustavson, a master’s degree graduate of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, believes in algae-based biofuel so strongly he’s taking the message on the road.
Starting Nov. 15, Gustavson will ride a motorcycle fueled with algal biodiesel and cooking oil in the Baja 1000, a grueling off-road race in Mexico considered one of the world’s most extreme riding competitions. Gustavson, who will be the first algal biofuel racer in the Baja 1000’s 45-year history, set a goal of obtaining enough algal biomass to fill one 42-gallon barrel with biofuel. His “One Barrel for Baja” project is led by UC San Diego students and postdoctoral researchers and supported by several university faculty members.
“One Barrel for Baja is a unifying effort to catalyze biotechnology development and demonstrate the performance capabilities of algal biodiesel to the racing community because they are usually the first to find out what works and what doesn’t,” said Gustavson, who has been riding off-road motorcycles since he was 10 years old.
Gustavson has been training for the competition for more than a year in preparation for the strenuous race from Ensenada to La Paz, Mexico, spread over 40 hours.
Earlier this year, Gustavson and his team set algae-fueled motorcycle speed records at the Texas Mile (Beeville, Texas) and the Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah) speed events. Reaching 96.2 miles-per-hour in Texas marked the fastest overall time at either events.
“Ultimately, I hope One Barrel for Baja demonstrates the performance capabilities of algal biodiesel to key audiences such as policy makers, investors, and other researchers,” he said.
Why go to this extreme, enduring hours of rigorous, dirt-filled riding to promote algae?
Marine algae are the most efficient organisms on Earth for absorbing light energy and converting it into a natural biomass oil product, the biofuel equivalent of crude oil. While other biofuel candidates such as corn and soybean use precious water supplies and occupy cropland, marine algae can be grown on barren desert land. Also, algae are inherently carbon neutral since they require carbon dioxide to grow.
UCSD students in the Biofuels Action and Awareness Network helped supply algal biofuel to kickstart the project last year and more recently Sapphire Energy has filled Gustavson’s motorcycle fuel tank.
“This project has captured the imagination of undergraduate and graduate students across several different disciplines at UC San Diego, including biology, policy, engineering, and aquatic ecology,” said Greg Mitchell, a biologist at Scripps Oceanography who conducts research on algal-based biofuel. “Collectively, these students have rolled up their sleeves, gotten their hands wet—and green—and pushed forward to grow algae to get the oil for biodiesel. This effort has accelerated our university labs to move to larger scale research and will have benefits related to galvanizing our interdisciplinary collaborations across our departments.”
“I think the fact that students are involved from several disciplines highlights the dynamic background of people involved,” said Gustavson. “I want to convey that progress is about pushing limits and trying new things.”
One Barrel for Baja participants include students and scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Robert “Skip” Pomeroy, Michael Burkart, and others from UC San Diego’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Steve Mayfield of UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology; Sapphire Energy; UC San Diego’s Student Veterans Organization; Carbon Capture Corporation, and others. Sponsors include Hessgen Racing, Phitec, FedEx, Fun Bike Center, K&N Filters,World Water Works, BIOCOM, Baja Pits, Dockers, Clif Bar, REDi Nation, Goal Zero, Baja Designs, World Water Works, Phitec, EDGE, KEEN, Track Motorcycles, and Life Technologies.
– Mario C. Aguilera