Bob Metcalfe takes helm of biofuel company

Tech veteran of Xerox Parc and 3Com, and a longtime VC, he's now trying his hand in biofuels.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Bob Metcalfe, one of the inventors of Ethernet networking, has stepped in as interim CEO at GreenFuel Technologies, a prominent alternative fuels company that has hit some problems.

The news that Metcalfe would replace Cary Bullock as CEO was first reported by Xconomy, a news site that often focuses on technology companies in Massachusetts. A high-ranking executive at GreenFuel confirmed that Metcalfe is the new CEO. Layoffs are also expected.

Metcalfe is also a member of GreenFuel's board and a partner at Polaris Venture Partners, an investor in GreenFuel.

Born out of research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early part of the decade, GreenFuel aims to build "bioreactors" filled with algae that can convert the carbon dioxide belching out of smokestacks into a feedstock for biodiesel or other liquid fuels.

The technology, ideally, will reduce greenhouse gases, lower the price of biodiesel or ethanol by introducing a relatively cheap feedstock to the market, and let utilities that install these bioreactors qualify for tax credits or carbon credits. The technology could also make it easier for power plants and utilities to wean themselves off coal: a bioreactor could take the carbon dioxide and turn it into algae food.

The company has estimated that there are 1,750 power plants in the U.S. sitting next to spare real estate that could accommodate GreenFuel's bioreactors. The standard size of the algae facilities will be around 250 acres.

Earlier this year, the company said it hopes to hit revenues of $100 million by 2012. It will license the technology as well as build its own power plant/algae facilities.

Unfortunately, a test plant in Arizona isn't working like it was supposed to and costs more than anticipated, according to the Xconomy site.

A memo allegedly from Metcalfe and posted by Xconomy stated the following:

"Our current third-generation engineering scale greenhouse grew algae faster than expected, demonstrating again that CO2 recycling and algae productivity can be achieved at scale in our high-technology greenhouses. However, this very success triggered failure, as we could not harvest the rapidly growing algae quickly enough. Their unexpected density limited light and nutrient supply, which caused them to start dying. As a result, the greenhouse had to be shut down."

This is an increasingly common story in the emerging clean-tech industry. Several bright and promising ideas have emerged from labs in recent years, but turning them into concrete, revenue-generating ventures often proves more difficult than expected. Miasole and DayStar Technologies, two small companies touting CIGS solar panels, have recently had to delay products.

Meanwhile, Konarka Technologies, which has raised $60 million in venture capital since 2001 but has not gone into mass production, recently replaced its CEO.

Other companies--LiveFuels, Solazyme--are also trying to figure out ways to use algae as a feedstock for biodiesel. Most of these companies, however, are not combining it with the carbon dioxide feeding system like GreenFuel. Even then, processing algae into a fuel source isn't easy. Scientists are still struggling to get the water separated from the algae.

"It's hard to beat gas as an ideal liquid fuel," said Ron Stoltz, government relations manager for Sandia National Labs. Sandia is licensing some of its algae fuel research to start-ups like LiveFuels.

Algae, though, does have its strengths. Unlike ethanol and biodiesel feedstocks like corn, sugar cane, or canola oil, algae isn't a major food staple. It also has little value. Ethanol producers have seen their profits evaporate with rising corn prices; algae refiners will, potentially, be insulated from price swings because they won't be bidding for algae against food producers. Biofuels, say advocates, will merely take time to develop.

The single-celled organisms are quite oily and they reproduce rapidly. A single hectare of bioreactors can generate 8,000 gallons of oil, 2,400 gallons of ethanol a year and 2.6 tons of glycerin, a material bought by the cosmetics industry, the company has estimated.

GreenFuel did not return calls for comment and neither did two of its venture capital firms.