Algae may ultimately be the preferred plant for making biofuels and other petrochemical replacements, but high costs have kept it from making a commercial impact to date.
Seattle-area start-up Bionavitas on Tuesday disclosed a technique, using pencil-shaped rods, to bring more light to algae to stimulate growth and, potentially, improve the economics of algae farming.
The acrylic rods--called Light Immersion Technology--penetrate the surface of a pool of algae to bring light deeper into the pool. Bionavitas said the rod addresses one of the main barriers to algae as an all-purpose feedstock and boosts productivity 10 times compared to existing methods.
The 3-year-old company, which has been funded by angel investors until now, is in the process of negotiating to raise a series A round that CEO and co-founder Michael Weaver anticipates will be tens of millions of dollars. That money will be used to build a biorefinery and a pilot plant for making biofuel from algae, he said.
"There are a lot of companies developing processes for growing algae. But there's a fundamental flaw to all those. You quickly become light-constrained, which is why you don't have massive growth," he said. "So it's all well and good to modify genes or find a special strain, but if you can't grow a large mass, you got nothing."
For making biofuels in an outdoor pond, the rods float on the surface and bring sunlight in. The rods are shaped so that incoming light is reflected internally until it reaches the bottom and can penetrate out.
Bionavitas also intends to make algae oil for nutraceuticals, which offer higher margins than biofuels. Later this year, it's planning to build an indoor closed bioreactor in Redmond, Wash., which will use dozens of light rods on the surface of a vat of algae. Instead of sunlight, the company intends to use red and blue LED lights, which will flicker to save on energy costs, Weaver said.
In addition to biofuels and nutraceuticals, Bionavitas intends to sell equipment to use algae for bioremediation, such as removing toxic substances from waste water, Weaver said.
Challenges to commercialization
Weaver believes that Bionavitas' light rods address a challenge in extracting a high yield from algae strains. But there still remain significant technical and economic challenges to competitively priced algae biofuels.
Algae harvesting, which involves drying algae and recycling water, can be manual and expensive. In its first pilot project, algae farmer GreenFuel Technologies found that harvesting added to its costs substantially, leading to a product redesign.
Bionativas intends to license technology from other companies that are developing equipment specifically for harvesting.
Funding for pilot biofuel or manufacturing facilities has become particularly difficult as investors have exited the green-tech business or become more conservative in betting on new technologies.
In solar, for example, some companies have decided to focus more on selling equipment rather than building solar power generating facilities themselves.
Weaver said the strategy at Bionavitas is to build its own refineries and to sell equipment. The company, which already has customers, intends to sell its bioreactors for both nutraceuticals and bioremediation this year.
"I would much rather have someone with a stronger balance sheet than mine pay for the capital cost for a biofuels plant," he said. "That's why there are partnerships with established companies to go big."