According to reports, the breakthrough idea came after two years of work. Sea6 Energy founders were convinced till then that microalgae held the secrets to a clean energy future. So did thousands of other entrepreneurs, researchers and investors around the world.
Algae could produce many times more oil per unit area than any plant in the world. But two years into the project, and some serious calculations later, four students and their professor at IIT Madras were convinced that microalgae economics just wouldn’t work for some time.
Renewable energy isn’t anyway economical at the moment without subsidies, but algal biofuels seemed hopelessly uneconomical. It was then that they thought of macroalgae.
Macroalgae is a technical term for seaweed. It seemed an extremely attractive proposition as an oil source even at first look. Seaweed grows in the shallow ocean waters and doesn’t need land.
Technology for its cultivation is well-established: it is being grown in the Tamil Nadu coast as a raw material for some cosmetics. Seaweed does not need external nutrients for growth: the sea is the ultimate nutrient reservoir. It grows quickly, is cheap and easy to harvest.
Microalgae on the other hand needed fresh water, large nutrient inputs and plenty of land. “We were preparing to abandon the project when we realised that we were chasing the wrong idea,” says Sea6 Energy chairman Shrikumar Suryanarayan. Suryanarayan was for two decades the head of R&D at Biocon.
He had left his job there in 2008 and was teaching at IIT Madras when some students sought his help to enter the prestigious iGEM competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. They were denied a visa but still won a prize after making a video presentation.
Shrikumar then got them interested in biofuels. “We went to algalbiofuel conferences and realised that we were at the same level as others,” says Sayash Kumar, one of the students. Two years later, when they had finished their master’s degree and were beginning to disperse, somebody thought of seaweed.
Only three other organisations then worked on macroalgal biofuel:Bio Architecture Labs based in San Franscisco, the Korean Institute of Industrial Technology and the Philippines government. The microalgal biofuels landscape was littered with startups, but with no commercial breakthrough in sight, many of them were no longer able to raise money. Yet the sector has seen some of the biggest investments in renewable energy.
Silicon-Valley-based Synthetic Genomics got $300 million from Exxon-Mobil, and San -Diego-basedSapphire Energy has so far raised $100 million. Pike Research has predicted the global biofuels market to reach $247 billion by the year 2020. It was a good business in the long term.