“We cook ’em and squeeze ’em.” That’s how LiveFuels CEO Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones describes her San Carlos, Calif.-based company’s process for turning algae-fed fish into oil for fuel using heat and high pressure. It’s a slightly more gruesome way of harvesting pond scum than the mechanical equipment employed by other startups working on algal fuels, but it might be cheaper.
According to a spokesman for LiveFuels, which was founded in 2006 and announced the kickoff of pilot operations at a 45-acre open pond test facility in Brownsville, Texas, this week, “It’s still being determined just how much less expensive the LiveFuels natural systems process will be compared to traditional mechanical processes, but we do know that current mono-culture process for developing algae require over $1 worth of nutrients…just to grow the algae for one gallon of fuel.” That dollar-per-gallon, he said, doesn’t take into account the cost of energy needed to pump thousands of gallons of water in the production process for every gallon of fuel. LiveFuels aims to cut costs by using grazing minnow-sized fish and “a variety of other aquatic herbivores” to harvest algae fertilized by agricultural runoff, and let “ocean currents do its ‘pumping’ for it.” It then plans to make fish meal from the protein solids, and process the remaining oils into either high-value omega-3 oils or fuel.
This process is not without critics who have environmental and ethical objections to raising animals for fuel. LiveFuels also faces technical challenges, such as how to make the system efficient enough to make up for the likelihood that the fish will have to eat more algae than the company would have to harvest directly for the same amount of fuel, notes Greentech Media.
Some investors, however, think LiveFuels has a good shot at making the technology and economics work. The company raised $10 million in May 2007 from David Gelbaum’s quiet Quercus Trust. At the time, LiveFuels reportedly hoped to have its biofuel ready for launch by 2010. At this point, however, the company is still trying to bring down costs, NYT’s Green Inc. reports, and will spend a good portion of what’s left of that $10 million on additional research and development. As a startup in this early stage — with a ticking clock and competition from well-funded heavy hitters like Algenol Biofuels, Synthetic Genomics and Sapphire Energy — LiveFuels is definitely a little fish in a big pond.