The San Diego Union-Tribune recently had a great feature on newly minted ABO Board Member Stephen Mayfield. Mayfield is the director of both the California Center for Algae Biotechnology and the Food and Fuel for the 21st Century research unit at UC San Diego. Notably, he also played a key role in starting up Sapphire Energy, Triton Health and Nutrition and Algenesis Materials—three algae-based companies. In fact, he has spent the past 25 years experimenting in algae. In short, he is an algae superstar!
The piece in the Union-Tribune highlights his work in the biofuels space in particular. Mayfield is currently focused on optimizing algae for crude oil extraction. As he explains it, there are three areas of focus in the extraction space: the strain of algae, the growing process (ponds and care/feeding) and the harvesting/conversion process. His particular emphasis is on the strain. In his words, “we spend most of our time working on the strand: getting the best algae that anyone in the world can use, because it’s productive and it’s resistant to pests and pathogens and it grows fast and it produces good oil.”
Despite considerable progress and a product that closely resembles petroleum (all crude oil we use today originated from algae), Mayfield still finds the space challenging. With volatile oil prices, the funding for biofuels has been inconsistent in recent years—during times with low oil prices, the drive to support biofuels diminishes considerably. Nonetheless, a combination of sustained support and a superior product could eventually revolutionize the fuel industry.