Seaweed Biofuel Maker, Bio Architecture Lab, Snags Partnership With Norway’s Statoil

A startup with a dream of turning seaweed into renewable biofuels just got some important validation from a big oil company.

Berkeley, CA-based Bio Architecture Lab said today it has secured a partnership with the world’s biggest offshore oil and gas producer, Norway-based Statoil, to build up capabilities to turn seaweed from off the Norwegian coast into ethanol for commercial markets in Europe. Financial terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed, although it’s a 3-year agreement in which Statoil will pay all the R&D expenses while allowing Bio Architecture Lab to receive commercial royalties on all ethanol and chemical byproducts generated by the partnership.

Statoil, while it may not have the name recognition in the U.S. of a behemoth like ExxonMobil, is no slouch. It has more than 28,000 employees worldwide and generates enough revenue to be ranked No. 36 on the Fortune 500 list.

“It’s game-changing for us because we’re partnering with a major energy company, and at the end of the day, all commercialization roads lead to energy companies. This, for us, is a really platform to commercialize our technology,” says Dan Trunfio, Bio Architecture Lab CEO.

Bio Architecture Lab, founded in 2007 with technology from University of Washington biochemist David Baker, has been on a roll the past couple years. Its big idea is to convert multi-cellular “macroalgae” (aka seaweed) into renewable fuels instead of the fast-dividing “microalgae” that many other companies are pursuing as an alternative to fossil fuels. Bio Architecture Lab has secured about $33 million in venture capital, government grants, and strategic investments for this idea. The technology still hasn’t been proven to be cost-effective at big commercial scales—the goal for all biofuel companies at the moment—but Bio Architecture Lab has secured critical early support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, chemical giant Dupont, the government of Chile, and Statoil. Trunfio, a former executive at oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group, joined the startup as its CEO back in May.

Dan Trunfio

Dan Trunfio

Why seaweed? To hear Trunfio tell the story, Bio Architecture Lab has pursued its niche in seaweed for a variety of reasons, both economic and political. One of the big problems with biofuel is finding a cheap, scalable, environmentally conscious way to get the raw biomass needed to pump out large volumes of fuel. Corn and soybeans aren’t ideal because they take away land that could be used to grow food crops. That has the potential to irritate critics who frame the idea as a “food-versus-fuel” trade-off. Seaweed avoids that problem, and it has a high amount of sugar in it that can be converted into energy, and it doesn’t have the tough cellulosic backbone called lignin that many plants have, which scientists still don’t know how to break down in an efficient industrial process.

Bio Architecture Lab has been testing its process extensively over the past year. Importantly, the company has formed partnerships with the Chilean government and aquafarmers there to obtain necessary seaweed supplies. The Norwegian coast is another ideal place for this kind of exploration because … Next Page »

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