Redmond, WA-based Bionavitas has been pretty stealthy until today, when it offered a peek into what it thinks will enable it to corner a piece of the market for algae-based biofuels.
Biofuels made from algae have attracted a boomlet of interest in the past year, as investors and entrepreneurs have been impressed with its potential for producing vastly higher yields of renewable fuel than more inefficient sources of farmed biological material, like corn or soybeans. Some big-name investors, like Bill Gates and Arch Venture Partners, have placed their algae bet with San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, and there’s been a slew of other contenders emerging recently in southern California.
Here in the cloudy Northwest, we lack one of the critical ingredients of photosynthesis that helps algae thrive—the sun. But Bionavitas doesn’t seem to care. It has patents pending on what it calls “Light Immersion Technology” which it says will help overcome an important limitation of algae biofuel production. Most processes get stuck when algae start growing too dense, creating a “self-shading” problem that blocks light to algae lower down in the water, meaning it can only grow in a 3-5 centimeter layer in the water. The Bionavitas technology, using rods that extend down to distribute the light deep into the water in both open ponds and closed bioreactors, enables algae to grow efficiently in one full meter of water. This means the company says it can squeeze another 10-to-12 fold boost in yields over standard algae production techniques.
The technology “gives algae a legitimate shot at becoming a cost-effective and sustainable biofuel feedstock because we have cracked the code of the previous problem related to self-shading in algae growth,” says Bionavitas CEO Michael Weaver, in a statement. “This new technology is a game-changer because it results in quantities of algae production necessary for commercial use.”
Bionavitas didn’t say much in today’s statement in detail about its commercial opportunities, other than it sees applications of its algae-growth technology for biofuels, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and environmental uses like for cleaning up toxic spills.
Weaver cut his teeth as an IT entrepreneur before making the switch to cleantech when he co-founded Bionavitas in 2006. We’ll be sure to press him soon for more detail on what this new company has in store for the year ahead.