Since the first time I saw a biodiesel bus in Austin, Texas many years ago, I've been hooked on the potential to replace fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives. Corn, soy and other early feedstocks were low-yield, required too much land for cultivation, and took away from the food supply. I've been eagerly awaiting the emergence of a second generation feedstock that resolves these issues.
While algae is one of a handful of contenders, the cost of producing fuel from algae has been prohibitive. But with a new innovation called Light Immersion Technology (LIT), Redmond-based Bionavitas may have cracked the code for cost-effective algae-based biofuel production.
One of the challenges of growing algae in the quantities necessary to be cost effective is "self-shading," when algae cells near the surface grow so dense that they block sunlight from reaching depths of more than a few inches. The darkness makes it impossible for cells to grow below. LIT, composed of clear acrylic rods, penetrate top layers of algae and reflect light internally, sending light to depths up to a meter. This enables algae to grow at much greater depths, boosting biomass quantities up to ten times.
For biofuel producers, this is a game-changing advance. Access to a plentiful, low-cost feedstock can offset the large capital investment required to set up the biorefinery. With previous production methods, algae costs ran at about $33 per gallon. However, Bionavitas is able to drive this cost down to around $2 per gallon using LIT.
Bionavitas' next step is building demonstration plants. The company is targeting the Salton Sea area in Southern California. It is hoping to partner with an extraction expert to build and manage the plants, which will grow algae in canal-shaped, covered ponds. The company is also receiving interest internationally, and sees many opportunities in developing nations with a lot of sunshine, for example areas closer to the tropics. Though finding funds to finance and build the demonstration plants is one of the biggest challenges Bionavitas faces, the recent passage of the stimulus plan may provide some relief via guaranteed loans or direct funding.
The company also plans to sell its equipment for purposes such as food-grade algae production, water remediation and carbon capture. To produce food-grade algae or nutraceuticals, LIT can use light from high efficiency LEDs in closed systems. Though artificial light is not cost-effective for biofuel production, the cost model works for nutraceuticals, which offer higher profit margins than biofuels.
One interesting aspect of algae production is that its production can help revive spoiled waterways. According to Michael Weaver, CEO of Bionavitas, algae needs plenty of carbon dioxide, solar energy, and nutrient-rich water. Environments polluted with agricultural runoff or water from mines or power plants are often well suited to provide the right nutrients. Since algae can remove carbon emissions and toxic substances from waste streams, it is ideal for remediation processes at power plants and industrial sites. For many industries, growing algae presents a more cost-effective solution for meeting legal obligations than other types of remediation.
Weaver, an environmentally minded entrepreneur, was inspired to start Bionavitas after talking with the folks at Imperium Renewables. It became clear to him that feedstock was the biggest hurdle to overcome in the biofuel industry, and to an entrepreneur, this signaled an opportunity. Though Western Washington isn't the best place to grow sun-loving algae, Weaver finds the social climate to be the region's biggest asset. The people in the Puget Sound area, says Weaver, are well educated, tech-minded, environmentally friendly, and motivated to create sustainable change.
Worldchanging Seattle's Serena Batten will be covering emerging local leaders in clean tech in her series, "Green Tech Watch." Serena has worked in Seattle's technology and finance industries for more than ten years, and is currently pursuing her MBA in technology management at the University of Washington.
Photo source: Bionavitas