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Start-up drills for oil in algae

Using NASA technology, GreenFuel Technologies feeds power plant pollution to pond scum to create biodiesel. Photos: Betting big on clean fuel

Where most people see pond scum, Isaac Berzin sees oil--and a hedge against global warming.

Berzin is the founder and chief technology officer of GreenFuel Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up that has a novel approach to energy and pollution control.

Using technology licensed from a NASA project, GreenFuel builds bioreactors--in the shape of 3-meter-high glass tubes fashioned as a triangle--to grow algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.


What's new:
Start-up GreenFuel has developed a system that uses algae to cut down on power plant emissions and produce biodiesel fuel.

Bottom line:
GreenFuel is one of several companies seeking to sell alternative fuels or "clean technology" to business customers. Experts say the demand is driven by the need to operate more efficiently and with less waste.

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GreenFuel is one of many companies developing businesses based on alternative energies such as biodiesel and so-called clean technologies. These companies are targeting business customers that might benefit from innovative approaches to reducing pollution or lowering their fuel spending.

"Businesses look at productivity and how to eliminate cost--one way is to eliminate waste or to use what you have more efficiently," said Nicholas Parker, executive director of investment group Cleantech Venture Network. "In many ways, clean tech is the enabling tech of 21st-century industrial society."

GreenFuel is initially focusing on energy utilities, which generate greenhouse gases that are seen as contributors to global warming and climate change. But its bioreactor technology can be used in many types of industrial installations or refineries, Berzin said.

The potential benefits of the system are twofold: Heavy polluters can cut down on their emissions, and the system can be used for large-scale biodiesel production. Biodiesel, which is often created with vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans, can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel in cars or trucks.

The 10-person company is still in its early stages. It has secured $2.1 million in venture funding and in March hired energy industry veteran Cary Bullock as president and CEO.


GreenFuel's product is being tested at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Berzin studied biology and chemical engineering. An energy utility in the southwestern United States plans to roll out the system more broadly later this year.

"Until now, it was proving that the technology works. Now, basically, it's proving that the economics behind the technology work," Berzin said. "The idea behind all this is that it's not a charity. If it makes sense economically, it will happen."

"Little packets of oil"
Algae are some of the most robust organisms on earth, able to grow in a wide range of conditions. That adaptability makes GreenFuel's bioreactors usable in many different conditions.

Researchers for years have sought to perfect the algae-creation process on a large scale, but without commercial success. Berzin said his work on a NASA project gave him new insight.

"I read descriptions of all this research, and it was clear to me that the limiting factor was the engineering side of the system," he said. "Algae can take (carbon dioxide), eat it and produce algae--that's a known fact. But if your system fails, it's a problem with your system, not the algae."

Before launching the company in 2001, Berzin was doing postdoctoral work with Payload Systems, a space engineering company, which was under contract with NASA to come up with a system to study how microgravity affects the growth of organisms in space.

Combining experts from various disciplines, the group at Payload Systems created a cell culture unit, a device about twice the size of a laptop computer, that allows scientists to change parameters that affect growth.

GreenFuel uses that cell culture unit to find the optimal algae for a particular environment. By taking samples of water and the emissions from power plants, it can rapidly fine-tune the process of finding the right algae.

"The strength of the team that worked on this NASA project was keeping these biological systems happy," Berzin said.

The company is also developing mathematical models on how to best control other inputs into the bioreactor, notably changes in light, to optimize algae growth.

Power plant emissions are piped into the triangular bioreactors along with water. The algae, which are exposed to the sun, consume carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis. They also can break down nitrogen oxide--thereby reducing the amount of polluting gas released.

Once the algae are grown, the conversion to biodiesel is a relatively simple process, said Berzin, who calls algae "little packets of oil." Biodiesel produced from the natural oils in soybeans can be used in existing diesel engines.

Interest in the plant product as a potential replacement to petroleum-based diesel appears to be rising. In a radio address over the weekend, ahead of a trip to the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery, President Bush identified biodiesel as "an alternative fuel that will help our country achieve greater energy independence."

Curbing carbon consumption
GreenFuel's technology looks promising, but it does have some limitations.

Because it relies on solar energy to grow the algae, its products will work best in areas where there is a lot of sun. Berzin says that location has not been a problem yet.

Also, creating a large-scale operation with thousands of bioreactors requires a great deal of land. GreenFuel estimates that 70 percent of power plants in the United States have enough land and "food"--that is, carbon byproduct.

Still, CEO Bullock is convinced there is a clear demand for energy-related technologies that reduce the environmental impact of operating a business. "It struck me as a technology that might just make a big difference," he said.

"They can be seen as heroes...but the bottom line is that it makes sense economically."
--Isaac Berzin, CTO, GreenFuel

Some of the impetus to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming is mandated by the Kyoto Treaty, which the United States has not signed. The treaty, expected to go into effect in Asia and Europe, calls for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released and for implementing a system for purchasing carbon emission credits.

"Certainly when I talk to utility executives, they're thinking about carbon, even though they don't have $10 or $20 emissions permits," Bullock said. "At a business level, it's a contingent liability."

Outside of business circles, Bullock notes that people in general are increasingly showing concern over the environment, particularly outside the United States. The prospect of being perceived as a "green"--and community-minded--company may also help drive sales of GreenFuel's products to energy utilities.

GreenFuel's pilot customer is considering a plan to sell or donate the biodiesel it generates from the bioreactors as fuel for local school buses.

"They can be seen as heroes by taking something dirty and making something wonderful and sharing it with the community," Berzin said. "But the bottom line is that it makes sense economically."