Even after nine years of being both a reporter covering the biotech industry and then working for the association that represents it, there are still some days when you see “gee-whiz” technologies that could be total game changers.

Whether it’s a smart-bomb drug for cancer like Genentech’s Avastin, Biogen Idec and Genentech’s Rituxan or Pfizer’s Sutent, all of which have strong roots in San Diego, or diabetes treatments like Amylin’s Byetta and Symlin, which despite recent trouble are still changing the way doctors treat diabetes, this industry and region is a hotbed for them.

This morning, we hosted a breakfast looking at new technologies life science companies are developing to help make gasoline green. Imagine using algae, wastewater and sunlight to grow “green crude” that can go directly into the nation’s existing oil-refinery infrastructure to be developed into gas for your car. Sapphire Energy, a local startup that has secured more than $100 million in venture capital, says it can do just that. We also heard from Verenium, a cellulosic ethanol company working to develop techniques that could make ethanol in a more efficient manner without impacting food crops, and from Agripower, a startup that has a semi-trailer-sized biomass conversion system that generates electricity from biomass waste.

Brad Fikes at the North County Times live-blogged the breakfast meeting here, so you can check out some of his notes or click through the company links to get more information.

There are, of course, major challenges associated with dreams this big. The research and development happening now is laying the groundwork for an energy-independent future.

“We’ve got to do this in the next 10-20 years,” says Dr. Stephen Mayfield of The Scripps Research Institute, and expert in the field of algae-based biofuels and scientific founder at Sapphire Energy. One of the major problems is how to effectively scale up the technology and processes.

“It’s really tricky getting from the lab to the commercial scale,” noted Verenium’s Janet Roemer.

While the life science industry is famous for the long-development times many of its most successful, and important products take, these companies, and others like them, are certainly worth keeping an eye on. In an era when Detroit is asking for $25 billion from the government to help innovate its way to fuel-efficiency, it’s great to see we have some of our own experts in the field, right here in our backyard.

— TIM INGERSOLL

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