July 2, 2007 4:30 PM PDT

Bob Metcalfe takes helm of biofuel company

Bob Metcalfe, one of the inventors of Ethernet networking, has stepped in as interim CEO at GreenFuel Technologies, a prominent alternative fuels company that has hit some problems.

The news that Metcalfe would replace Cary Bullock as CEO was first reported by Xconomy, a news site that often focuses on technology companies in Massachusetts. A high-ranking executive at GreenFuel confirmed that Metcalfe is the new CEO. Layoffs are also expected.

Metcalfe is also a member of GreenFuel's board and a partner at Polaris Venture Partners, an investor in GreenFuel.

Born out of research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early part of the decade, GreenFuel aims to build "bioreactors" filled with algae that can convert the carbon dioxide belching out of smokestacks into a feedstock for biodiesel or other liquid fuels.

The technology, ideally, will reduce greenhouse gases, lower the price of biodiesel or ethanol by introducing a relatively cheap feedstock to the market, and let utilities that install these bioreactors qualify for tax credits or carbon credits. The technology could also make it easier for power plants and utilities to wean themselves off coal: a bioreactor could take the carbon dioxide and turn it into algae food.

The company has estimated that there are 1,750 power plants in the U.S. sitting next to spare real estate that could accommodate GreenFuel's bioreactors. The standard size of the algae facilities will be around 250 acres.

Earlier this year, the company said it hopes to hit revenues of $100 million by 2012. It will license the technology as well as build its own power plant/algae facilities.

Unfortunately, a test plant in Arizona isn't working like it was supposed to and costs more than anticipated, according to the Xconomy site.

A memo allegedly from Metcalfe and posted by Xconomy stated the following:

"Our current third-generation engineering scale greenhouse grew algae faster than expected, demonstrating again that CO2 recycling and algae productivity can be achieved at scale in our high-technology greenhouses. However, this very success triggered failure, as we could not harvest the rapidly growing algae quickly enough. Their unexpected density limited light and nutrient supply, which caused them to start dying. As a result, the greenhouse had to be shut down."

This is an increasingly common story in the emerging clean-tech industry. Several bright and promising ideas have emerged from labs in recent years, but turning them into concrete, revenue-generating ventures often proves more difficult than expected. Miasole and DayStar Technologies, two small companies touting CIGS solar panels, have recently had to delay products.

Meanwhile, Konarka Technologies, which has raised $60 million in venture capital since 2001 but has not gone into mass production, recently replaced its CEO.

Other companies--LiveFuels, Solazyme--are also trying to figure out ways to use algae as a feedstock for biodiesel. Most of these companies, however, are not combining it with the carbon dioxide feeding system like GreenFuel. Even then, processing algae into a fuel source isn't easy. Scientists are still struggling to get the water separated from the algae.

"It's hard to beat gas as an ideal liquid fuel," said Ron Stoltz, government relations manager for Sandia National Labs. Sandia is licensing some of its algae fuel research to start-ups like LiveFuels.

Algae, though, does have its strengths. Unlike ethanol and biodiesel feedstocks like corn, sugar cane, or canola oil, algae isn't a major food staple. It also has little value. Ethanol producers have seen their profits evaporate with rising corn prices; algae refiners will, potentially, be insulated from price swings because they won't be bidding for algae against food producers. Biofuels, say advocates, will merely take time to develop.

The single-celled organisms are quite oily and they reproduce rapidly. A single hectare of bioreactors can generate 8,000 gallons of oil, 2,400 gallons of ethanol a year and 2.6 tons of glycerin, a material bought by the cosmetics industry, the company has estimated.

GreenFuel did not return calls for comment and neither did two of its venture capital firms.

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9 comments

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Promising
Keep working on it, guys. It's a lot more promising than the other
biofuel options. But it just goes to show us how hard it will be to
get off of oil.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hemp is better
Hemp is such a smarter fuel. votehemp.com
Posted by larajh (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
when VCs hire outside of specialty
When you hire an IT exec to run a bio-tech fuel comapny, you know
you are in trouble. The VCs are just trying to impress the well
heeled IT execs who invest in their funds. That they can't find
somebody from the energy/bio-tech convergence reflects the
twenty years of failure that well experienced people have had with
this concept.
Posted by wylbur (110 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No kidding?
Scams like this one don't last for too long. Too bad for Dr. Metcalfe, such a briliant mind... Unfortunately the laws of thermodynamics couldn't care less if you are the father of the Internet or not:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://algae-thermodynamics.blogspot.com/" target="_newWindow">http://algae-thermodynamics.blogspot.com/</a>
Posted by Krassen Dimitrov (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Metcalf might just be able to do it
It is likely that Bob Metcalfe has accepted this appointment because he already understands the shortcomings of existing process and has an idea of how to work around them. One would think that he has read your document about the company's current process.

Since you have some expertise in this area Dr. Dimitrov, you should consider contacting Dr. Metcalfe to share your research with him. Quite frankly, the world can't wait for the traditional trial and error process to work - we're in trouble now.
Posted by Arbalest05 (83 comments )
Link Flag
Update on news from Xconomy
www.xconomy.com just published an update on Bob Metcalfe at Biofuel. Looks like the company received more financing to continue their work.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.xconomy.com/2007/07/25/greenfuel-secures-bridge-financing-of-55-million/" target="_newWindow">http://www.xconomy.com/2007/07/25/greenfuel-secures-bridge-financing-of-55-million/</a>
Posted by akoyfman (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
It is more complicated
by Krassen Dimitrov July 3, 2007 4:38 PM PDT
I did send my Case Study to Dr. Metcalfe, however things are more complicated. For starters, he is not alone in this: Jennifer Fonstad who is currently the Chairman of the Board is allergic to technical/scientific arguments, so she would be of no help.
Secondly, these ageing visionaries (like Metcalfe) have been so successful in the past that they develop a sense of invincibility that ultimately leads to their demise.
Posted by OKNow2009 (4 comments )
Link Flag
bridge financing is helpful if you use it smart,
<a href="http://www.bridge-financing.org/">bridge financing</a>

Edward
Posted by edwardha (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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