May 20, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Start-up drills for oil in algae
Berzin is the founder and chief technology officer of GreenFuel Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up that has a novel approach to energy and pollution control.
Using technology licensed from a NASA project, GreenFuel builds bioreactors--in the shape of 3-meter-high glass tubes fashioned as a triangle--to grow algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.
Start-up GreenFuel has developed a system that uses algae to cut down on power plant emissions and produce biodiesel fuel.
GreenFuel is one of several companies seeking to sell alternative fuels or "clean technology" to business customers. Experts say the demand is driven by the need to operate more efficiently and with less waste.
GreenFuel is one of many companies developing businesses based on alternative energies such as biodiesel and so-called clean technologies. These companies are targeting business customers that might benefit from innovative approaches to reducing pollution or lowering their fuel spending.
"Businesses look at productivity and how to eliminate cost--one way is to eliminate waste or to use what you have more efficiently," said Nicholas Parker, executive director of investment group Cleantech Venture Network. "In many ways, clean tech is the enabling tech of 21st-century industrial society."
GreenFuel is initially focusing on energy utilities, which generate greenhouse gases that are seen as contributors to global warming and climate change. But its bioreactor technology can be used in many types of industrial installations or refineries, Berzin said.
The potential benefits of the system are twofold: Heavy polluters can cut down on their emissions, and the system can be used for large-scale biodiesel production. Biodiesel, which is often created with vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans, can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel in cars or trucks.
The 10-person company is still in its early stages. It has secured $2.1 million in venture funding and in March hired energy industry veteran Cary Bullock as president and CEO.
GreenFuel's product is being tested at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Berzin studied biology and chemical engineering. An energy utility in the southwestern United States plans to roll out the system more broadly later this year.
"Until now, it was proving that the technology works. Now, basically, it's proving that the economics behind the technology work," Berzin said. "The idea behind all this is that it's not a charity. If it makes sense economically, it will happen."
"Little packets of oil"
Algae are some of the most robust organisms on earth, able to grow in a wide range of conditions. That adaptability makes GreenFuel's bioreactors usable in many different conditions.
Researchers for years have sought to perfect the algae-creation process on a large scale, but without commercial success. Berzin said his work on a NASA project gave him new insight.
"I read descriptions of all this research, and it was clear to me
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