Seaweed-Powered Cars Coming Your Way?

Seaweed: great for sushi, skin care and … powering cars? Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) thinks so, and it announced Wednesday that it’s lined up a Norwegian oil heavy weight, Statoil, to help it bring its technology to market.

Statoil has agreed to fund the research and development of a process conceived by BAL to turn macroalgae growing off the coast of Norway into ethanol, said BAL, a 3-year-old company based in Berkeley, Calif. Statoil will finance demonstration projects which, if proven successful, will lead to more funding from Statoil to bring the ethanol to market. Statoil plans to sell the ethanol in Europe.

While BAL figures out the right steps to transform seaweed into ethanol, Statoil, the largest oil and gas producer in Norway and one of the largest offshore oil producers in the world, will figure out the logistics of farming seaweed. The companies declined to disclose the investment figures.

Daniel Trunfio, who became CEO of BAL in May after 25 years with Royal Dutch Shell and running Adventine Renewable Energy in Illinois as its chief operating officer, told us the startup’s strategy is to seek industry partners with the money and resources to commercialize its technology from the start.

“If you think about where the second-generation [biofuel] companies have struggled, it’s having the balance sheet to commercialize the technology,” Trunfio said. “I have no doubt that our R&D milestones will be met. Now we have a platform to commercialize the technology.”

BAL’s technology will extract the carbohydrates from seaweed and break down the sugar for fermentation. The company has worked on using E. coli to do the work, but wants to develop the yeast to do the same, he said. Using yeast can be more cost-effective because of the long history of using yeast to produce ethanol, he added.

Seaweed has one advantage that cellulosic materials such as switchgrass and woodchips don’t have: It doesn’t have lignin, so breaking it down to make sugar isn’t as difficult, Trunfio said.

Growing seaweed isn’t a novel idea, and commercial seaweed farming has been around since the 1950s, he said. Those farms are growing seaweed for food while BAL plans to grow non-edible species.

About 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of ethanol can be made from one acre of seaweed, he said. In comparison, 992 gallons of ethanol can be made from one acre of sugarcane in Brazil and 420 gallons from one acre of corn, he said. Trunfio declined to discuss manufacturing costs.

BAL has lined up two other projects. The Chilean government has given the startup $7 million to grow seaweed and turn it into ethanol. The company started its seaweed farming operation in May. It’s also working with DuPont to turn seaweed into isobutanol. DuPont won an $8.8 million grant from the ARPA-E program at the U.S. Department of Energy for the $17.7 million project. A joint venture between DuPont and BP called Butamax Advanced Biofuels will bring the technology to market.

Overall, BAL has received close to $34 million in private equity, project financing and government funding, including money from Statoil. BAL’s investors include Austral Capital, X/Seed Capital and Energy Capital Management

David Baker, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, founded BAL. His two co-founders hailed from Japan, though both of them, Yasuo Yoshikuni and Yuki Kashiyama, earned graduate degrees at UC Berkeley and have worked in the U.S. Yoshikuni is the chief science officer while Kashiyama heads the company’s Chilean operation.

Image courtesy of Snowball team and BAL.

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