California's OriginOil seeks better way to grow algae

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One could say they are working on the green slime that could change the world.

Riggs Eckelberry (L) and his brother Nicholas Eckelberry, both co-founders of OriginOil based in Los Angeles, frame a desktop model of their Helix BioReactor in Los Angeles December 12, 2008. OriginOil is in a race with hundreds of other companies to find an affordable way to convert algae to energy. Algae promises to use less land, water and other resources than other biofuels, such as corn. Picture taken December 12, 2008. REUTERS/Bernie Woodall

In an unassuming converted warehouse in Los Angeles, the 10 employees of OriginOil are working to perfect the way microscopic algae is grown and refined.

They hope that within a few years the methods they use to make small batches of greenish-colored algae mixtures in the laboratory will be imitated in 2,500-gallon (9,460 liter) tanks around the world. And that the oil extracted from the algae will in many cases replace petroleum.

OriginOil is in a race with hundreds of other companies to find an affordable way to convert algae to energy. Algae promises to use less land, water and other resources than other biofuels, such as corn.

The company is led by co-founders and brothers Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and president, and inventor Nicholas Eckelberry. Recently hired Vikram Pattarkine is chief technology officer.

OriginOil was founded in June 2007 and came up with its key invention -- a bioreactor that speeds algae growth and acts more like a brewery than an algae farm -- in February 2008. It plans to roll out working models built by partners beginning in 2010.

Among the hundreds of companies seeking algae energy, “less than a dozen stand out,” said Riggs Eckelberry, and he includes his own among the elite few.

“We are more of a collaborator than a competitor,” he said, explaining a major reason why he felt the company stood out.

OriginOil, he says, wants to provide the method, the technology of algae growth and leave the manufacture of machines and devices to others. In OriginOil’s plan, it would link with licensed partners around the world where its style of algae bioreactors would be deployed.

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“We think of ourselves as the operating system of the algae industry,” Riggs Eckelberry said.

“Once all the technology barriers to make algae are overcome -- and that goes hand-in-hand with resolving the price barriers -- everybody is going to make algae. It won’t be five producers. It will be 100,000 producers around the world,” he said.

He said costs of the technology were still being studied, along with oil yield but that yields compared favorably with large-scale algae refineries in Japan, although OriginOil’s results were from small tanks in the laboratory.

OriginOil’s technology involves a Helix BioReactor. A shaft in the middle of the bioreactor, which will be built to scale depending on the size of the tank, rotates to allow low-energy lights to speed the growth of algae in layers around-the-clock. The same system feeds the algae nutrients and carbon dioxide it needs.

The oil is then extracted from the organism’s cell walls using a chemical-free microwave process. The technology is modular, scalable and portable, Riggs Eckelberry said.

In an algae pond, growth occurs only near the top that is exposed to sunlight. Algae is also prone to being eaten or damaged by infection or chemicals in the pond.

Nicholas Eckelberry said the system he and Pattarkine work with limits those types of problems to a single tank, without impacting a tank stacked right on it.

Technology being developed by some other firms involves growing algae in a series of large plastic bags.

Privately held Sapphire Energy of San Diego has made a form of gasoline from algae and is lobbying the incoming Obama Administration to fund algae research.

Sapphire has been funded by $100 million in venture capital from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners and others.

Nine algae-to-energy companies were on a list of the “50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy” complied by Biofuels Digest and issued earlier this month.

Sapphire was listed number 2, while OriginOil was at number 45.

Riggs Eckelberry said he was surprised his company was even on the list.

“We are still very much in the research and development stage,” he said.

OriginOil ended trade on Tuesday at 38 cents per share, against a year-high of 51 cents and a low of 18 cents. Riggs Eckelberry says the company was adequately funded and would begin reporting revenues by 2010 but won’t be profitable for a few years.

“Our investors want us to build out our technology first and not rush it,” he said.

Editing by David Fogarty