Zero Mix Thirty: Heliae debuts Volaris, for algae at scale

April 24, 2013 |

green-algae-drinkHeliae emerges from stealth with Volaris — its next-gen algae platform — “This technology will unlock the industry,” the company says.

Is the secret in the mixology?

OK, algae fans, you’ve been waiting a long while for a production platform that will produce algae on a commercially competitive basis.

It’s been like the search for Osama Bin Laden — false leads, heartbreak, delay, determination, the knowledge that the solution is “somewhere” and was frustratingly out of reach — and a whole lot of stealth around the approaches that were showing promise.

Heliae comes out of the dark, and into the light and dark

In Arizona this morning, Heliae is announcing the launch of its new microalgae production platform, Volaris. Volaris is the result of five years of targeted innovation, investment and commitment to delivering a commercially validated technology platform for producing high purity microalgae at competitive prices.

volaris f2

“Volaris is a game-changer that will enable large-scale production for diverse markets and provide a natural, sustainable, and consistent supply of algae-based products to meet worldwide demand,” the company said in a release.

Deployment of the Volaris platform will support commercial activities in Heliae’s target markets including nutrition, therapeutics, health & beauty, and agrosciences.

“With Volaris, we can drop the dollar per kilogram cost to a point that makes algae immediately attractive,” said Adrian Galvez, vice president of operations for Heliae. “The flexibility we have in this technology allows us to control output traits and deliver exactly what a customer needs from our algae. This increased product optionality will open new markets for algae.”

The company said that Volaris will play an important role in Heliae’s new 20-acre commercial facility currently under construction in Gilbert, Ariz., slated to open in late Q3 of 2013 — and other commercialization activity (think expansion to Indonesia) to begin later this year.

Yep, this year. 2013.

Heliae who?

You can be forgiven if you don’t know who the heck Heliae is. As we wrote last year, “You can forgive yourself if the Heliae story feels a little fuzzy. They have enough stealth in their approach to the mission to make a SEAL team proud. Their main investors, the Mars family, are famous for it. It took decades before they allowed the first reporter into one of their factories to see a machine stamp the “M” on an M&M.”

Here’s what you need to know. It’s a 2008 spin-out from Arizona State University that attracted the support of the Mars family — and ultimately, $15 million in funding from international conglomerate Salim Group’s agribusiness company, PT PP London Sumatra Indonesia. In all, the company has raised $50 million in funding.

Light and dark, closed and open.

You’ve heard the debate for years — are closed or open system the winners, ponds, or closed PBRs? It is better to use photosynthetic algae and capture free energy from the sun, or let other plants make sugars from the sun and use heterotrophic algae that consume other biomass in order to produce target materials.

Solazyme uses hetroetrophic algae in closed systems. Sapphire Energy uses phototrophic algae in an open pond system. Solix uses photosynthetic algae in a closed PBR. And the approaches multiply from there.

But what if you could be a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll? What if you could bring the low-cost of open ponds systems to the high yields of the closed PBRs. What if you could use solar energy by day, and dark growth approach by night.

The Heliae system, we knew last year — was going to look something like a greenhouse, and is expected to be built out to a 160 acre-demonstration, with groundbreaking on its pilot plant scheduled for later this month in Arizona – and includes a patent-pending extraction process in its IP portfolio.

The Mixotrophic approach

Volaris utilizes both sunlight and waste carbon feedstocks to optimize facility economics. “The algae industry has been hindered by the limits of conventional technology,” stated Lee Tonkovich, Heliae’s vice president of research & development.

“Phototrophy and heterotrophy, both have their weaknesses – namely contamination and low growth rates in phototrophy and extremely high capital and operating expenses in heterotrophy. We’ve developed a hybrid mixotrophic pathway which drives down capital costs, reduces contamination, and increases productivity to dramatically improve the economics of algae production.”

According to Heliae, the productivity gains Volaris provides will reduce much of the land required for a commercial facility. Volaris will play an important role in Heliae’s new 20-acre commercial facility currently under construction in Gilbert, Ariz., slated to open in late Q3 of 2013.

“Volaris is the next generation in algae growth technology,” said Adrian Galvez, vice president of operations for Heliae. “With it, we can drop the dollar per kilogram cost to a point that makes algae immediately attractive. The flexibility we have in this technology allows us to control output traits and deliver exactly what a customer needs from our algae. This increased product optionality will open new markets for algae.”

The Volaris system

We’ve seen work on what is called, in patent world, a V-Shaped Photobioreactor system that we suspect provides the “V” in the Volaris system. The claim, in several apps, is that a V-Shaped bottom will provide a point of entry for gases uses to mix the algae, and prevents material from settling on the reactor bottom and leading to contamination build-up.

Another key feature: a gas delivery system (separate from CO2 delivery). Heliae notes: “The gas delivery systems are placed strategically along or near the axis defined by the bottom of the V to keep solids in suspension, and to provide improved mixing of the culture medium. Mixing rate of the culture medium can be controlled by the gas delivery system alone, or in combination with other agitation means.”

Other areas of focus have been dewatering, harvesting, and a two-solvent system for extracting polar and neutral lipids and proteins. Note the empahsis on both polar and neutral lipids. As Heliae notes:

“These polar lipids are high value products which can be used as surfactants, detergents, and food additives. Neutral lipids remaining in the algal biomass after extraction of polar lipids can be used to generate renewable fuels.”

Show me the data

If you are looking for hard data to leak out of Heliae headquarters at this time, re-think that proposition — and instead consider exactly how much you know about Taliban technology. You probably will have more hard data on the latter, for now — absent signing NDA wrapped in dark energy and dark matter.

Best we can relate is the claim, and the URL — and urging you to check it out.

“We’ve developed a technology platform that finally delivers on what the industry has been promising for more than a decade,” Dan Simon, Heliae’s president and CEO. “With Volaris technology, we’re now able to offer algae solutions for a range of markets, which have not been possible with existing technology. This technology will unlock the industry.”

The Digest’s Take

Heliae says that Volaris is a commercial system now for nutrition, therapeutics, health & beauty, and agrosciences — which is to say, the company has a cost-competitive system for the high-margin, lower-volume markets.

For sure, Heliae has been hard at work, based on what we’ve been seeing via a measure of patent app activity. Sapphire Energy is named in 35 patent apps, Solazyme is named in 86, Solix in 7 — by that measure, the naming of Heliae in 43 patent apps stacks up strongly.

Biofuels — on the roadmap but in the “not now” category — suggesting that the system is producing algae in the sub-$10 range where nutraceuticals become attractive, but has not cracked the $5 barrier where fuels begin to come into the near-term picture.

We like big claims — especially those with “2013” in them and that involve external partners who are going to have through due diligence opportunities before proceeding to fork over the dollars.

But even better, big data. The next step in Heliae’s journey is going to be the most vital one — the signing of hard-dollar offtake contracts, or the sale of a commercial-scale system.

Algae’s many fans may not have long to wait.

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