Alternative Fuels

As you know, I have been interested in sources of alternative energy for some time, particularly the work that Craig Venter and his colleagues are doing with algae to produce large quantities of fuel. It is important for the long-term prosperity of our nation that we become energy independent. The best approach, I believe, will be to take greater advantage of our own available sources of fossil fuels, while developing alternative sources such as small nuclear reactors, wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels. As recent events in Egypt have shown us once again, the world is a volatile place, and we depend on others for our energy needs at our own peril.

In some cases, we should consider government funding for basic and applied research in alternative fuels. As the example of DARPA has shown over and over again, relatively small investments in emerging technologies can have a very large impact. There will of course be many failures along the way, but I believe they are well worth the occasional blockbuster success, such as the development of the Internet and stealth aircraft technology — both of which were pioneered by DARPA.

But we have also seen that the private sector can do much on its own to develop and bring new technologies to the market without government subsidies. This is the case with Exxon’s recent $600 million deal with Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics. The two companies clearly believe that the potential financial rewards of finding and developing reliable sources of biofuels on a large scale are great, and they are willing to move forward without an infusion of government funding.

I was pleased to read a recent article on written by my friend Stephen Mayfield at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. According to Stephen, 2011 will bring some very important innovations in the area of algae biofuels from the drawing board to reality. Here are his top five innovations for 2011:

  • The first synthetic algal genome
  • The first significant scale-up of algae biofuel production
  • The first clinical trial of an algae-based therapeutic
  • The introduction of several new algae-based nutraceuticals
  • Oil to top $120 a barrel, and with that a much broader realization that we really are running out of the good stuff

This is all very exciting to me, and I am pleased to know that San Diego has become the center for research in algae-based biofuels. This area of research holds the promise of one day bringing our nation true energy independence, an outcome that will be a great strategic asset in the coming years.