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Google's Under-the-Radar Algae Play Seeks Fresh Funds

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nasa-algae-bagsGoogle (s GOOG) has showered funds on solar power, plug-in vehicles, batteries and energy management since getting bitten by the cleantech bug a few years ago. Next-gen biofuels made from algae, which have generated no small amount of interest from other investors, might have been starting to feel left out. But back in 2007, Google provided grants for clean energy projects at NASA Ames, and a scientist named Jonathan Trent snagged one of them for an underwater, largely under-the-radar algae project. According to Cleantech Group, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have invested $250,000 in Trent’s ongoing efforts to develop an algae-based fuel using a decidedly low-tech input: sewage.

Today that project, called “Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth,” is ready to leave the lab and venture into pilot-scale demonstrations — if the team can pull in some more cash. Already, Spaceship Earth is first in line for a California Energy Commission grant worth up to $800,000, as Cleantech Group writes, and the team will find out if it’s getting the award in a little less than a month.

The idea of the project, led by Trent of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. (where Brin and Page have the unusual perk of leasing a federally managed runway for their private jet), is to grow algae in bags (pictured) filled with sewage, and then turn that algae into biofuels. The bags — developed for recycling astronauts’ wastewater on long space missions — are meant to be placed in the ocean, avoiding some of the challenges of growing algae on land, either in bioreactors or open-air ponds. Discovery News recently explained how the system is supposed to work:

The natural salinity of the ocean will draw the freshwater out, retaining the plants and nutrients. The membranes prevent saltwater from getting inside and killing the plants, while ocean waves keep the algae mixed and healthy. The process treats the sewage water, which is then released into the ocean, and after the algae is harvested, the plastic bags can be recycled.

It will cost much more than the $800,000 possibly coming from the California Energy Commission for Trent and his Spaceship Earth team to move into commercial-scale production if the demonstration proves successful. Algae startup GreenFuel, which finally shut down last week after cutting almost half its staff in January, said last year that it would use up to $92 million to build an algae-based fuel plant in Europe.

Even if Spaceship Earth needs just a fraction of that, it will face plenty of competition for funding from VC firms — which Trent describes as somewhat less than enthusiastic about his scheme (“wary,” according to Greenwire). More than a dozen algae startups are already racing to bring pond scum to fuel tanks, and San Diego aims to become the Silicon Valley of algae innovation.

Born at NASA, Spaceship Earth does have at least one committed fan: government. Besides the feds, the city of Santa Cruz, Calif., has said it will support a pilot demonstration using municipal wastewater off its coast. If the technology can surpass the considerable environmental and regulatory hurdles certain to come with processing wastewater in the ocean, and the inevitable funding and technical challenges of ramping up to a large scale, then Spaceship Earth could potentially win on cost — at least as an algae grower, if not a biofuels producer and distributor. (Big Oil has the advantage of existing infrastructure for distribution.) “It doesn’t cost us anything. Osmosis works by itself,” Trent told Greenwire recently. “It’s energy-free.” Count that as one less energy datapoint for Google to manage.