Acoustic Algae? Solix & Los Alamos Lab Team Up

solixbiofuels1Solix Biofuels might not have a big oil backer like a number of its algae fuel competitors, but the Fort Collins, Colo.-based startup can now list Los Alamos National Laboratory as a partner. Solix said this week that it’s entered into a research and development agreement with the lab to use its acoustic technology to harvest algae for fuel.

Los Alamos’ acoustic-focusing technology generates ultrasonic fields that concentrate algal cells into a dense sludge and extract oil. Solix hopes that combining the concentration and extraction steps into one process will eliminate the need for centrifuges and solvents (traditional extraction methods) — and at the same time, significantly cut the cost of producing the biofuel.

Los Alamos scientists will work with Solix to build a prototype by the end of the year for use later at Solix’s demonstration facility in southwestern Colorado. Solix says that facility should be at “full-scale commercial operation” by late 2009 with the capacity to produce the equivalent of 3,000 gallons per acre, per year, of algal oil.

Rather than use open ponds, Solix has developed a bioreactor technology that houses closed chambers to grow algae. The 4-year-old startup, which completed a $16.8 million first round of venture funding in June, says the closed-growth approach has higher productivity than open pond systems and is less susceptible to contamination. The startup didn’t say how the development of the acoustic-focusing technology would impact its plans for commercial production at its Colorado facility.

Algae fuel is turning out to be more expensive and further from commercial production than many early investors originally hoped. Some leading algae fuel startups like Solazyme have already raised tens of millions of dollars in financing but are still several years away from producing fuel at prices that are competitive with petroleum. Solix may be producing fuel from algae by the end of the year that it intends to sell, but without volume or low cost its technology will still have a long way to go before it’s ready for the big leagues.