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Federal grants for biofuels projects help cultivate California companies

December 4, 2009 |  2:42 pm
Sapphire Energy Algae Biofuels
Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle at his San Diego algae lab. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

The federal government this morning announced it will hand out $600 million for next-generation biofuels projects, including those being developed by several California companies.

“Advanced biofuels are critical to building a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system in the U.S.,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a statement. “These projects will help establish a domestic industry that will create jobs here at home and open new markets across rural America.”

Second-generation biofuels produce ethanol, diesel and jet fuel from wood waste, nonfood crops, algae and other feedstocks. San Diego in particular has become a hotbed for companies developing biofuel from algae.

Sapphire Energy, based in San Diego, will receive $50 million from the Department of Energy for the construction of a pilot biofuel facility in Columbus, N.M. Algae grown in ponds will be transformed into jet fuel and diesel. The company also scored a $54.5-million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture to build the New Mexico project. 

Bay Area start-up Amyris Biotechnologies won a $25-million grant for an Emeryville plant that will produce biodiesel and nonpetroleum-based chemicals from sweet sorghum.

Solazyme, based in San Francisco, will use a $21.8-million grant for a Riverside, Pa., facility that will make biofuel from algae.

ZeaChem, a Colorado start-up backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Mohr Davidow Ventures, will get $25 million to produce ethanol from hybrid poplar trees at a Boardman, Ore., pilot plant.

Start-ups weren’t the only beneficiaries of the federal largesse. Agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland won $24.8 million for a Decatur, Ill., ethanol project.

-- Todd Woody