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From Oil Boom to Algae Bloom: Could algae-to-oil technology make San Diego a major oil exporter?

"Too cold to start a fire. I'm burning diesel. I'm burning Dinosaur Bones" - Johnny Cash, Rusty Cage by Soundgarden - There is misconception that oil comes from dinosaur bones. It doesn't. Almost all of the oil in the world comes from algae, which, as it decays over millions of years, breaks down into oil. And it's looking like San Diego could turn out to be one of the nation's number one sources for oil and gasoline by making instant oil out of a very special form of genetically manipulated algae.

In yesterday's Voice of San Diego, Jennifer McEentee explores San Diego's blooming bio-fuels industry and how the potential of making "green oil" from algae has attracted mainstream investors such as Exxon/Mobil and top talent from the scientific community, including  J. Craig Venter, who played a key role in sequencing the human genome and helped develop the first synthetic self replicating bacteria. According to Voice of San Diego, Exxon/Mobil is committing $600 million in the next ten years to fund algae-to-oil research

The genetic sequencing of algae, particularily the species known as Volvox carteri, is being closely studied by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which has developed the DOE Joint Genome Institute in cooperation with the Salk Institute.

Why all the scientific fuss about algae?

Because the lowly Volvox has the potential to fuel a new oil boom. The scientific consensus is that San Diego has the expertise and technology to make algae-based fuels commercially viable within four to 10 years. Right now a gallon of algae-fuel costs about $10 to produce. It sounds expensive, but those costs will come down, and you could argue that doing nothing to reduce our dependence on oil may be the most expensive option on the table. According to a report by the National Defense Council Foundation titled "The Hidden Cost of Oil" (in PDF format), once you factor in the military costs of defending America's oil supply, the added cost per gallon of gas is at least $2.28 a gallon. (That's probably a very low estimate).

So forget about Texas Tea. "Green Gold" may be our ticket out of our current fossil-fueled miasma. It's time to break the rusty cage.