One of Seattle’s most interesting clean energy startups is feeling the impact from the earthquake last weekend in Chile.
Seattle-based Bio Architecture Lab, a University of Washington spinoff that’s developing microbes to turn seaweed into renewable fuel, has built a big part of its business on relationships in Chile. The company has an office in Santiago, and received part of its initial $8 million venture round from Santiago-based Austral Capital. A Chilean economic development group has poured in another $7 million, local university and oil industry partners are involved, and some permits have been issued to run a pilot project in Chile’s coastal waters.
“Fortunately, BAL employees in Chile are safe and accounted for, which is the most important thing for us,” says Niki Parekh, Bio Architecture Lab’s CEO. “We are watching developments in Chile closely, but as you can imagine the first priority for the government is to respond to the crisis. We don’t know for sure what impact, if any, this event will have on our long term plans. Our thoughts are with the people of Chile, especially those who have suffered as a result of the earthquake.”
We wrote last November when Bio Architecture Lab raised its initial venture round, and formed a partnership with DuPont that has secured a $9 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program. The vision was to use seaweed, also known as “macroalgae,” as the crucial raw material for renewable fuel.
Bio Architecture Lab has focused on this multi-cellular form of algae for a number of reasons. It is cheap and abundant. Seaweed is also thought to be more environmentally sustainable than other sources of biomass feedstock like corn or soybeans, since seaweed doesn’t need to compete with crops for land, creating the “food vs. fuel” dilemma. Bio Architecture Lab’s belief, which is still being tested in R&D, is that it can convert seaweed into renewable butanol at low cost, and at industrial scale.
The ocean aquafarming industry in the U.S. is tiny, so Chile was a natural place to test this hypothesis. Chile has an established aquaculture industry, partners who were open to support the new clean energy economy, high-density seaweed, and 4,000 miles of ocean coastline. The project was considered a big deal in Chile—before the quake, anyway. The goal is to produce 165 million liters of biofuel per year, or about 5 percent of Chile’s annual petrol consumption, according to a local report in January by MercoPress.
With or without the Chile partnership, the research appears to be moving forward. Just yesterday, DuPont formally announced that it has matched the federal ARPA-E grant in order to put a combined $17.7 million into the project to create renewable butanol with Bio Architecture Lab. More than 60 scientists from DuPont and Bio Architecture Lab—spread among sites in Wilmington, DE, and Berkeley, CA—will test the idea. This aquafarming project is to be situated off the southern California coast.
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