|A bag of algae is hung between a row of lights at General Atomics facilities. Photo: Sam Hodgson|
Now, with the economy tanking again, another bunch of scientists is telling anyone who will listen that the region's next economic boom might be borne out of pond scum.
Algae that is -- green gold, San Diego soda.
San Diego, already home to dozens of companies involved in solar or wind energy, would be a major player in the nation's multi-trillion-dollar energy economy if a group of local researchers succeed in turning algae into a commercially viable transportation fuel, something they think they can do within a decade.
Mayfield is one of several scientists at both Scripps institutions and the University of California, San Diego who are considered among the word's foremost algae researchers. Other prominent names are Steve Kay, dean of the division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, and B. Gregory Mitchell, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In recent years some of the area's biggest players have decided they want a piece of the green spongy stuff. And, after abandoning algae as a viable biofuel in the 1990s, the federal government is again funding research.
"It is important not to overhype algae," said Lisa Bicker, president of CleanTECH San Diego, a green industry association. "We are excited about it, but it is early."
Corn-based ethanol, the oil alternative that has garnered the most attention -- not to mention billions of dollars in government subsidies -- is now considered by many to be a bad idea. For one thing, every acre of corn used for ethanol is an acre that can't be used for food. The result has been years of steep inflation in the price of corn-based staples, which has disproportionally hurt the poorest on the planet.
"Algae should have the same subsidies as corn," Kay said. "The good news is momentum is building for us, but it is still David v. Goliath."