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15 Algae Startups Bringing Pond Scum to Fuel Tanks

Updated: greenfuelphoto.jpgIf corn-based biofuels are the Britney Spears of the cleantech world (a fallen star but still all over the place), fuel made from algae is the next great American Idol winner (major potential in the pipeline). And despite the fact that algae-to-biofuel startups have been taking their sweet time bringing a pond scum fuel product to market, some inroads have been made recently — GreenFuel is building its first plant, PetroSun starts producing at their farm on April 1, and big oil Chevron and Shell have made some early bets as well.

As we watch this play out, here are 15 algae biofuel firms that you should know about:

GreenFuel Technologies: The Cambridge, Mass.-based algae firm led by telecom bigwig Bob Metcalfe (whom we interviewed here) has reached an agreement to build its first fuel plant — worth $92 million — in Europe, says Xconomy. It’s good news for the firm, which has hit some speed bumps over the past year, including layoffs, switching CEOs, shutting down a greenhouse in Arizona and discovering that its algae tech was more expensive than first planned.

The startup builds algae bioreactor systems, which use recycled CO2 to feed the algae, which is then converted into biofuels; it uses the containers to carefully control the algae’s intake of sunlight and nutrients. GreenFuel is backed by Polaris Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson (our video interview with DFJ here) and Access Private Equity and has been working on raising a Series C funding.

Solazyme: The five-year old firm uses synthetic biology and genetic engineering to tweak algal strains for better biofuel yields. Based in South San Francisco, the company grows its algae in fermentation tanks without sunlight, by feeding it sugar. The company is one of the few that have managed to do deals with a major oil company — Chevron — as well as biodiesel maker Imperium Renewables. Backers include Blue Crest Capital Finance and The Roda Group.

Blue Marble Energy: The Seattle-based company finds algae-infested polluted water systems, cleans up the environment, and turns the algae into biofuel. “If the future of biofuels is algae…you’re never going to get enough volume in bioreactors or ponds…It has to be something with greater volume,” the company told the Guardian . We’re not sure how Blue Marble will control the wild algae settings, but it sounds like it could be difficult.

Inventure Chemical: Also out of Seattle, this startup is working on an algae-to-jet fuel product, and told the Seattle PI that it has already created algae-based fuel in 5- to 10-gallon tests and plans to set up a test plant to see if it can produce between from three and 15 million gallons of biofuel each year. Inventure Chemical closed its first round of funding mid-2007, and investors are reported to be biodiesel company Imperium Renewables, Cedar Grove Investments, Brighton Jones Wealth Management and undisclosed angel investors.

Solena: Profiled in the New York Times today, Solena uses high temperatures to gasify algae and other organic substances with high-energy outputs. The Washington state-based company is talking with Kansas power firm Sunflower to build a 40-megawatt power plant run on gasified algae, according to the NYT; the algae would be grown in big plastic containers, and fed by a combination of sunlight and the sodium bicarbonate biproduct of the adjacent coal plant.

Live Fuels: Instead of attempting to convert algae directly into ethanol or biodiesel, this startup is trying to create green crude that could be fed directly through the nation’s current refinery system. The Menlo Park, Calif-based startup uses open-pond algae bioreactors and plans to commercialize its technology by 2010. Investors include the Quercus Trust (David Gelbaum’s well-known environmental funding group) and Sandia National Labs.

Solix Biofuels: Like Live Fuels, Solix is also working on a biocrude, but using a closed-tank bioreactor set-up. Based in Fort Collins, Colo., and founded in April 2006, the firm is backed by Colorado State University’s Engine and Energy Conversion Laboratory. The company has said that construction will begin shortly on its first, large-scale bioreactor at the nearby New Belgian Brewery, where CO2 waste produced during the beer-making proicess will be used to feed the algae.

Aurora Biofuels: Developed at the University of California at Berkeley, the company is using genetics ally to isolate modified exclusive algae strains that can efficiently create biodiesel. Aurora claims the technology can create biodiesel fuel with yields that are 125 times higher and have 50 percent lower costs than current production methods (Update: developed by microbial biology professor Tasios Melis was an early advisor to the team). According to the company’s web site, backers include Gabriel Venture Partners, Noventi, Oak Investment Partners (and angel investors include Auttomatic CEO Toni Schneider)

Aquaflow Binomics: The New Zealand company’s goal is to become “the first company in the world to economically produce biofuel from wild algae harvested from open-air environments.” Like Blue Marble Energy, the three-year-old startup sources its algae from algae-infested polluted water systems, cleaning the polluted environment in the process.

Late last year, publicly held Aquaflow used its algae-based biodiesel to run a Land Rover driven by New Zealand’s Minister of Climate Change. And it’s been working with Boeing on algae-to-bio-based jet fuel.

Petro Sun: This company is also publicly held, but we thought it was important to include it because they plan to start up their algae-to-biofuel production factory in Rio Honda, Texas, on April 1. The algae farm has 1,100 acres ponds that Petro Sun thinks will make 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass per year. Some think the company is just jumping on the algae-slimed bandwagon.

Bionavitas: Based in Snoqualmie, Wash., the company says it has developed technology for the high-volume production of algae using bioreactors. Check out their WIPO patent app for the bioreactor setup.

Mighty Algae Biofuels: The little we do know about Mighty Algae Biofuels we learned through their entrance in the California Cleantech Open last year. We know, for example, that it uses closed bioreactors to grow the algae. They were also quoted in the San Jose Mercury this month on a story about algae biofuel.

Bodega Algae: Another newbee, this one with roots at MIT, the one-year-old firm has developed a set-up to grow algae in bioreactors with light and nutrients that it says is lower cost and more efficient than the current methods. Back in May 2007 Bodega said it was looking for $300,000 for “capital equipment, salaries and testing materials to complete the first prototype and begin a pilot study with a biodiesel manufacturing facility.” (Their web site is down, so we’ll if they’re still around).

Seambiotic: The five-year-old Israeli startup produces algae for applications, including the budding biofuel industry, and is working with Inventure Chemical. The firm has been working with Israeli Electric Company, utilizing IEC’s smokestack for a source of CO2 and grows algae in eight open algae ponds.

Cellena: A joint venture created by Hawaiian algae-to-biofuel startup HR Biopetroleum and oil company Shell. Shell has majority share of the company, which is in the process of building a demo facility on the Kona coast of Hawaii.

154 Responses to “15 Algae Startups Bringing Pond Scum to Fuel Tanks”

  1. Hey, great article. If the lakes I have visited here this summer are any indication, there is indeed a never ending source of fuel in the area of algae!

    Seriously though, I like the idea, and think you did a great job in presenting it.

  2. L Yarbrough

    One more for the list, and a big one: Algenol, which is helping to build an $850m solar algal bioreactor plant in the Mexican Sonoran Desert, and whose algae are distinctive in that they actually SECRETE ethanol, rather than having to be harvested and processed for lipids (the base for biodiesel).

  3. This is the answer to the nations energy problem! There should be a mandate from congress to start mass production of algae biofuel. It should be made available first to the truckers before many have to cease operation. I think the clowns at OPEC are getting nervous about this one. I can’t wait to see their faces when they can’t even give away their dirty oil. Hurray up guys!!

  4. Chirag Gajjar,

    You can start at any initial investment size depending on who you have collaborating on a project. Finding equipment suppliers or advisors is not the principal challenge. Once you start, you will want to know who will be investing in the following steps to build on the first initial investment. I am also bringing together investors for possible participation in new initiatives; they may like to also hear about what you want to do. Let’s discuss on my website-blog if you like.

  5. chirag Gajjar

    I am having the large land plots in Rajasthan in India and wish to go for the production of Alge for the biofuel.
    Can any one suggest the project cost viable at the starting level.


    Cequesta of Jerusalem, Israel ( are leaders in large-scale algae field (LSAF) technology. Of all plants, algae have the most exciting future since their potential productivity per hectare is many more times any other plant variety.

    To achieve their full potential, improvements are needed in algae strains, photo-bioreactor design, and processing. Cequesta knows and understands these areas very well and has retained the most experienced researchers in this exciting field. The company has independent development teams in four places around the world, coordinated from Jerusalem. We believe we will be the first to produce low-cost bio-fuel from algae, along with other very important commercial products like fishmeal; natural neutraceuticals; replacements for synthetic neutraceuticals and synthetic food additives and fish oils.

    Our senior staff are:
    Chief Operational Officer: Shlomzion Landau
    Chief Technical Officer: Dr Michael Kagan
    Chief Scientist: Professor Amos Richmond
    Chief Excutive Officer: David Waimann
    Chief LSAF designer: Eitan Sharir
    Chief Labs: Jenia Gutman

    t: +972 2 6738158
    f: +972 2 6738157

    Our laboratories and test centre are at Mevo’ot Yam by the Mediterranean sea.

    | Prof. Amos Richmond | Dr. Michael Kagan | David Waimann |


    Pond Scum Shows Promise as Fuel

    by Jan TenBruggencate Honolulu Advertiser May 12, 2007

    Could pond scum solve the world’s energy and global warming crises?

    University of Hawai’i professor Pengchen “Patrick” Fu thinks it can, with a little push from biotechnology.

    Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria – one of the components of pond scum – that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

    He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

    “It’s a promising technology,” said Maria Tome, energy engineer with the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s energy office. “It has a lot of appeal and potential.”

    Tome, who has been briefed on the project, said that if it works, its benefits could be significant.

    “Turning waste into something useful is a good thing,” she said.

    The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but “I think this technology has a future. This work is very good,” said C.Y. Hu, associate director for research with the university’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, which houses the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology.

    The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there’s still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level, Fu said.


    Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors.

    He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. One problem Fu encounters is that as the cyanobacteria produces ethanol, the increased concentration of ethanol eventually kills the algae.

    Recently, he clambered over Kilauea volcano on the Big Island seeking out new strains of cyanobacteria that might be more effective.

    Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California. He is an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology, although his contract ends this summer.

    He is working with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, yesterday won third place – and a $5,000 award – in the Business Plan Competition at UH’s Shidler College of Business.

    Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu’s partners. Kealoha said the time seems to be right and the technology compelling, so they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

    The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation’s and the world’s major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That’s different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.

    Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy. Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

    Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu’s technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system, he said.

    “We have no need to use anything but sunlight and carbon dioxide,” plus a trace amount of nutrient materials, he said. “We are very confident about this.”


    The technology is fairly simple, he said. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction.

    Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria.

    “Solar energy drives the conversion” of the carbon dioxide into ethanol, Fu said. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the photobioreactor.

    The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick-taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol, Fu said.

    And he believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

    Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production.

    To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a major cause of global warming.

    Source: Honolulu Advertiser

  8. o'scrod

    Nice summary. Petro Sun management includes Dallas Cowboys legend Rayfield Wright. They sponsor a college football bowl game in addition to harvesting algae. Maybe they’re going to break through into the open with their farms on the Gulf Coast.

  9. Good article. Thank you, Ms. Fehrenbacher. One criticism. The media have got to stop using cute little tag lines like “Turning pond scum into fuel”. It is demeaning of a very serois technology that offers the world a MAJOR solution to a myriad of problems.

  10. Great report, and interest in your follow-up story that could discuss technical hurdles, harmful biproducts, current cost comparison to ethanol, rates of progress toward cost reduction, etc.

  11. As a resident of China, I am wondering if any of these companies have moved into China, and if so what the reception has been.

    Last summer there were no less than 14 large lakes that experienced sever algae blooms, and already we have seen 10 tributaries of the Yangtze experience algae blooms this year (in the cold season).

    In my mind, and of course this depends on the ability of the technologies listed above, there could potentially be a large market in China.


  12. Katie: Way 2 Go! Green biodiesel is the “way 2 go”.
    We live on Lake Champlain. Currently, the dairy farms dump manure on fields which drains into the lake fertilizing seaweeds which choke the shoreline. We can harvest the seaweed biomass and blend with the manure, cut the carbon, produce methane and power.
    “Way 2 go!”.
    Bob Hardy, Vergennes, VT 05491 M 802 777 3311