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Solix Biofuels Raises Money, Changes Name

Algae-growing firm Solix Biofuels has raised $16 million in a second round of venture capital funding. It has also changed its name to Solix BioSystems “to better reflect its role as a leading provider of algae production systems.”

Solix photobioreactor

Solix BioSystems' Lumian AGS4000, an algae grower. Credit: Solix BioSystems

There are many, many firms working hard right this moment trying to make money by growing algae for biofuel. Solix joins at least one other firm – OriginOil – in looking to make money from firms looking to make money with algae.

The first two most difficult things about using algae as a feedstock for biofuels is 1) growing algae and 2) growing a lot of algae.

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Sunlight to Fuels with Joule

Is it possible to take sunlight and CO2 and make liquid fuel from it? The folks at Joule Unlimited think so. Today the firm announced that it has been awarded a patent for technology that purports to convert the ubiquitous inputs into diesel fuel. The firm uses photobioreactors to supply sunlight and CO2 to engineered cyanobacteria that produce n-alkanes.

It’s different than most biofuel start-ups that we read about in that there is no food for the bacteria (often called bluegreen algae, though not technically an algae) other than sunlight and CO2. So, no sugar, either from corn, cellulose or other source. Also there’s no harvesting because the process is designed to be continuous.

Having learned about some of the ins and outs of various biofuel technologies, what sounds nifty about Joule’s technology is the directness of it. As any engineer will tell you, the problems with any process come at the interfaces. Getting cheap cellulosic material to the front door is a problem for a cellulosic ethanol producer. Separating algae from water and squeezing oil out of the humble creatures is a problem for algal oil firms. Doing away with the feeding and the squeezing might be a good idea.

But just because this week’s technology avoids the pitfalls of last week’s doesn’t at all mean it will be successful. If you want to put your own odds on Joule’s prospects, take a look at their shiny new patent (or their almost-as-shiny patent on “Hyperphotosynthetic Organisms.”

And you can read today’s New York Times story on the company, which says the bacteria actually “sweat” n-alkanes. Nice visual, there.

Raising money for algae

Credit: Solazyme

This week two algae-to-fuels firms took different pathways to raise new capital while they work out how to commericialize their technologies. The hundreds of start-ups looking to cash in on the little green organisms are likely watching closely.

San Francisco-based Solazyme has raised an impressive $52 million in its fourth round of venture capital funding. Unfortunately for the algae industry, the round does not signify that new investors are flocking to this corner of cleantech – there was only one new investor, Morgan Stanley, participating. Oil company Chevron has stayed on as a strategic investor through its venture capital arm.

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Welcome to Cleantech Chemistry

Hello there! Thanks for stopping by.

Welcome to C&EN’s Cleantech Chemistry blog. With your help, I will use this forum to explore the science and business of the many new industries that meet at the intersection of innovation, chemistry, and sustainability.

What types of emerging green technologies do you find most intriguing? Troubling? If you’d like to see this blog address particular topics, please leave a note in the comments section.

Though I often write about purely technology-driven cleantech start-ups for the magazine, since C&EN spans the full chemical enterprise, I will also look into the ways traditional chemical firms are navigating the new “green” markets.

Today’s issue of C&EN includes a profile of FMC (subscription required), a chemical company founded way back in the 1920s. I was able to speak at length with the firm’s new CEO, Pierre Brondeau. I noticed two sustainability “mini case studies” happening at the company. The first is a common risk-mitigation story. The second one shows the other side: a new market driven by consumer demand for sustainable products.

FMC makes the lion’s share of its earnings from agricultural chemicals including pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Governments around the world frequently prohibit sale or use of particular agricultural products due to risk to human health or the environment. For example, the EPA is revisiting the issue of possible health effects of Atrazine, marketed by Syngenta. (see C&EN story – subscription required).

Brondeau says that a large part of FMC’s agricultural portfolio is given over to insuring that there are replacements available and ready to go if any of its products have to be taken off the shelf. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, he says that FMC is weighing an evolution towards green agricultural products.

But its FMC’s algae business that shows the other side of the coin. Currently the company derives biopolymer ingredients like carrageenan and alginates from seaweed for food and pharmaceutical applications. But the firm now has a small toehold in the personal care business and is hoping that it will become a high growth area. Companies like Avon, L’Oreal, and Procter and Gamble are interested in using sustainably harvested algal oil in their products in response to demand from consumers for plant-derived ingredients.

In a C&EN cover story about research at L’Oreal, Lisa Jarvis explored the firm’s sustainability efforts.

FMC is not the only algae firm hoping to move into the high margin personal care business. Solazyme recently announced that it will work with Unilever to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products.

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