Algaeventure Systems (AVS) is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that would revolutionize renewable energy production. Founded in 2008, the Ohio-based spinoff of plastics manufacturer Univenture has already built an innovative Harvesting, Dewatering, and Drying (HDD) system. Their HDD technology overcomes one of the biggest hurdles in commercializing algae as a viable biofuel replacement for petroleum-based fuel: efficiently extracting algae from the water in which it grows. By drawing on the natural principles of cohesion, transpiration and osmosis – that is, mimicking water’s ascent up plant stems – it reduces extraction costs by more than 99 percent, from $875 per ton to $1.92 per ton. While other extraction techniques can add $5.71 to $22.20 to the cost of a gallon of algae oil, Algaeventure’s process adds only 12 cents per gallon.
In a renewable energy market dominated by spinning wind turbines, glittering solar panels, and corn-based ethanol, algae seems an unlikely feedstock. While the Department of Energy (DOE) studied algae’s potential as a biofuel feedstock during the oil crisis of the 1970s, it abandoned the attempt by 1996 due to the difficulty of making algae cost-competitive. Algae, which doubles its mass every two hours, has the potential to produce 3,000-6,000 gallons of oil per acre, compared to corn’s thirteen. With the right harvesting technique, devoting just three and a half percent of Ohio’s existing farmland to algae could replace the state’s “entire petroleum needs,” said David Coho, AVS’s vice president of business development.”
Algaeventure is rolling up its sleeves to turn their HDD process into a commercially viable operation. “In our 20-year history of packaging, we built all of the machines we use to make our packaging,” Coho explained. “We’re machine builders – instead of making machines for the packaging [industry] we’ll be making machines for the algae industry.” The move by Univenture into algae was accidental: while researching available options for non-petroleum-based biofeedstocks to respond to customers’ requests for environmentally friendly packaging, they stumbled across algae, where Univenture’s initial interest eventually culminated in their HDD breakthrough.
The conventional manufacturing corporation is among a rapidly growing list of companies that are starting to tap into renewables markets, leveraging their established technical expertise and capacity to build clean energy systems. AVS is currently filling a commercial purchase order from General Atomics to fabricate harvesters that use HDD to extract algae for fuel production. “We have people welding frames and actually building [greenhouses and harvesters],” said Coho, who is ready to “roll these greenhouses out” to Ohio farmers from their manufacturing facility.
Creating jobs is one of AVS’ highest priorities. Its workforce, now at about 25, has doubled in the past few months. As Chad Hummel, AVS’ manager of government, industries and collaborations, told Apollo, while the company’s last round of hiring focused on bringing in biologists to refine the HDD technology, they intend to create manufacturing jobs as their operations shift to commercial production. In their current manufacturing process, each harvester is built individually, but commercial production would mean dozens – perhaps hundreds in a few years – more local manufacturing jobs.
The success of Algaeventure in bringing new jobs to Marysville, Ohio, could not have been achieved without government support. AVS received a grant last November of nearly $6 million through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) program, which is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The award – the seventh largest in ARPA-E’s inaugural round of grants – is designed to promote high-risk, high-reward research in the style of DARPA, the cutting-edge military R&D agency that developed the Internet. Coho identified the ARPA-E grant as “instrumental,” enabling “huge leaps forward on this technology.”
Continued government support will be essential to maintain projects in the emerging algae industry and beyond. Commercializing algae won’t happen overnight. “We believe it’s going to be the sum of many industrial breakthroughs,” Coho said. “We need a long-term commitment to the transformation of our economy and use of energy for something like algae.” Concrete federal and state assistance can provide stability to a credit-starved, volatile marketplace, giving small companies like Algaeventure Systems the environment to flourish. With this support, CEO Ross Youngs is confident that “we can create a lot of jobs in the rural environment.”
Algaeventure Systems is currently in the midst of an unexpected dialogue on the ongoing Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with representatives from BP and the DOE. Apparently, the same technology AVS uses to strain algae from water can be used to filter oil from seawater. Ironically, the advance that might reduce our dependence on oil also has the potential to contain the consequences of drilling too deep to obtain it. “Once you start down the path toward new technologies, things come off that you didn’t envision, couldn’t imagine,” Hummel said. “Industries will be developed that you and I can’t even fathom.”
Photo credit: Algaeventure Systems