Algae front-runner GreenFuel slashes staff

GreenFuel Technologies, one of the only algae companies to boast an actual customer, has cut its staff by half to "weather the economic storm."

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

Algae biofuel outfit GreenFuel Technologies has laid off 19 people, or about half of its staff, another sign of the difficulty that fledgling alternative fuels face.

A company representative confirmed the staff reduction on Monday and said one of GreenFuel's two major customers--the Aurantia cement factory in Spain--remains a customer.

An algae bioreactor from another algae fuel firm, PetroAlgae. PetroAlgae

GreenFuel has developed a method for growing and harvesting algae in a greenhouse. The idea is to locate the greenhouses near a large carbon dioxide emitter, like a cement factory or power plant, to "feed" the algae. The algae is then harvested, dried, and turned into biodiesel or feed food.

Company CEO Simon Upfill-Brown, who was recruited last year from Dow Chemical to head the 8-year-old firm, told Xconomy that the engineering for its Spanish deal, previously estimated at $92 million, will be outsourced.

"We've got to weather this economic storm as best we can," Upfill-Brown said. "This is the right thing to do."

A person claiming to be a former contract worker at the company said GreenFuel's Aurantia customer was dissatisfied because of several months of delays.

GreenFuel was one of the first companies to get funded to commercialize algae farming, and there are now several companies and researchers studying methods for turning algae into fuel.

But the company has had its missteps. Its first test facility at an Arizona utility produced too much algae, making the harvesting very manual and driving up the cost of operation. It replaced its CEO, putting investor Bob Metcalfe in charge for several months.

GreenFuel isn't alone in running into stumbling blocks, though. Many clean-tech companies are hunkering down, seeking to preserve cash so they can finish developing products.

Biofuel firms seeking to commercialize their technology are particularly vulnerable to the financial industry meltdown. Demonstration plants require large amounts of money to build. But investors have become more risk-averse, making it tougher for relatively unproven firms to demonstrate and fine-tune their technologies.