Oil derived from algae could be the next trend in biotechnology, and a South San Francisco company is riding the wave with an $8.5 million contract from the Navy.
Solazyme Inc., a synthetic biofuel company founded in South City, feeds various types of biomass — sawdust or sugar cane — through different algae strands to get oil for energy or for food, according to Harrison Dillon, the company’s co-founder and chief technical officer.
“For many researchers, it’s about energy or food,” he said. “For us, it’s energy and food.”
Dillon said algae found in lakes, rivers, streams and oceans was the precursor to all plant life and therefore the numerous strands available make it optimal for science to derive diesel fuel and edible oils.
It takes roughly one week for algae to turn the biomass into fuel, he said.
The company will help create fuel for warships to be able to travel in any ocean and any temperature, Dillon said.
“It also enables the military to be independent of the global petroleum supply,” he said. “With algae converting the cellulose or biomass to jet fuel, diesel fuel or whatever the military needs, they will not be dependent on oil from abroad.”
Kelly Widener, Department of Defense Energy Support Center spokeswoman, echoed the underlying goal.
“The estimated $8.5 million contract represents the continued commitment by the Department of Defense to move toward an environment of energy independence and the use of alternative fuels,” Widener said in a statement.
The Navy awarded the contract to Solazyme with the expectation of receiving up to 20,000 gallons of the alternative diesel fuel in the next 12 months.
The contract is funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal stimulus package.
Dillon said Solazyme has already created more than 10,000 gallons of the fuel and sold it to several oil companies, so they know the product works.
“This is a huge step for national energy security,” he said. “The quantity of fuel we’re delivering is unprecedented for the next generation of biofuel.”
Dillon said the company hopes to be able to offer the new fuel to consumers within the next three years.