GreenFuel, a US algae-to-biofuel business founded by Israeli Isaac Berzin more than 10 years ago, most likely failed because it was a bit ahead of the zeitgeist. Hoping to reach the market when the product and timing is right, the young Israeli company Univerve plans to turn algae — the green slimy microorganisms you skim from ponds and pools — into the perfect third-generation biofuel.
Ohad Zuckerman, CEO of the 10-person company based in Tel Aviv, thinks he and his team have the right stuff to make it happen. With a 20-year background in seed breeding, Zuckerman is leading his team in developing a new biofuel from a fatty super-strain of algae that grows robustly in a broad range of temperatures.
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As Berzin and the Israeli company Seambiotics know, algae is a good source of biofuel that does not compete with crops for food as does biofuel made from potatoes, sugarcane or corn. Second-generation biofuels are better, because they are made from materials that are typically not edible, such as wood, castor plants or jatropha. However, these feedstocks still require arable land and fresh water, meaning that they could never be cultivated in a high enough supply to meet the world’s demands. Algae have a higher yield per acre over time without taking up precious farmland.
“I knew about first-generation biofuels at my seed business, but when I met my partner in March 2008, he told me about second- and third-generation [biofuels] and that algae might be a very good solution,” Zuckerman tells ISRAEL21c. “We founded the company in 2009 because we believe this could be a good way to change the geopolitical arena, and also for environmental reasons.”
He points out that biofuels are good alternatives to fossil fuels for the short and long term. “You don’t have to make modifications to the engines of cars, ships or airplanes. They are really a carbon-neutral solution [because they consume carbon dioxide to grow and produce it when burned], and we looked to microalgae because they do not compete with food.”
Breeding is the key
Now the trick is to get to a good biofuel, and this is where Zuckerman’s seed-breeding background comes in handy.
“You can’t just throw seeds to the ground to get a good crop,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Since 1978, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) has been looking into microalgae-based fuels created in both artificial and natural environments, and the topic was discussed in the ivory towers there two decades earlier. When the DOE’s Aquatic Species Program ended in 1996 without finding a cost-effective solution, researchers and industrialists took up the challenge to turn algae into a viable alternative fuel for the future.
Linked to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot — and with a Tel Aviv University business dean on the board — Univerve is working to improve the strains of algae it cultivates and also to refine a growth system.
The final step, extracting the oil, would be done in partnership with a third party from the United States.
Oiling the wheels for big business
Zuckerman won’t be creating genetically modified transgenic crops. He uses traditional plant-breeding techniques to get a hardy strain of algae that can provide the most efficient feedstock. The company will also focus on cultivation and harvesting methodologies.
Univerve has been self-financed till now, but based on current milestones the company is looking for a $5 million investment to continue development of the project and to start the process on leased land with appropriate access to water. The first commercial plant is expected to be built in Israel, where the climate is right.
The algae strains that Univerve grows use saline or brackish water rather than freshwater reserves — perfect for a desert with brackish underground reservoirs.
“We assume we will be able to be commercializing by 2014, but we still need to finish development, optimize production, scale up and make processes automated,” says Zuckerman.
Unlike other algae growers that make a range of products from their plants, such as vitamins, Univerve’s focus only on oils is risky from a business perspective. But that’s a risk that clean-tech entrepreneur Zuckerman is willing to take.
The Univerve pilot plant can be seen in action at the Rotem Industrial Park near Dimona, Israel.