GreenFuel Fired Up for Big Plant in Spain—Announces Next Phase of $92 Million Plan
GreenFuel Technologies, the Cambridge, MA-based developer of algae bioreactor systems that convert carbon dioxide emissions into clean-burning biofuels, announced today that it had launched the second phase of a major project with Spanish renewable energy firm Aurantia to build a large-scale algae farming plant adjacent to a CO2-spewing cement plant near Jerez, Spain.
In making the announcement, GreenFuel for the first time publicly confirmed key details—and added more—of a story Xconomy broke back in March about the deal, which could apparently be worth as much as $92 million for the company if all milestones are met ($92 million also appears to be the value of the plant, according to the press release–we are trying to clarify the situation). “The exciting thing for us is we are progressing on this deal,” GreenFuel’s CEO, Simon Upfill-Brown, told me when I visited the company’s offices yesterday.
GreenFuel said it signed the deal in December 2007, but that work began last July with the dispatch of a field team to develop and deliver an operational greenhouse at the Holcim cement plant outside Cádiz, in sun-soaked Andalusia. Last month, according to today’s announcement, the company started the second major phase—which consists of building a larger, 100m2 prototype greenhouse and harvesting operation (the same size plant the firm was building in Cambridge this summer).
If key milestones are met, a third phase will involve building a 1,000m2 facility, which Upfill-Brown says “we’ll start putting up shortly.” A commercial-scale system of some 100 hectares (247 acres) could be running by the end of 2010, able to produce 25,000 tones of algae biomass each year, he says. If all goes well, the facility “will be one of the first, if not the first, large-scale algae growing systems” in the world, Upfill-Brown says.
Aurantia is funding the work using GreenFuel’s technology—and the two firms are jointly engineering the plant. Upfill-Brown says the phased approach enables the companies to make sure they are successfully debugging problems and developing the key technologies before trying to reach full commercial scale. “This is a big new infrastructure project, and we know we’re going to encounter hurdles,” he says.
GreenFuel’s core technology uses high concentrations of carbon dioxide—cement plants are mega-producers of the gas—to sustain the growth of naturally occurring strains of algae that, in turn, can be used to produce feedstocks and fuel such as biodiesel. Sunlight is a key factor in the conversion, since the algae takes up CO2 through photosynthesis—making it advantageous to locate the plants near big carbon dioxide producers in sunny climates. “They [Aurantia] feel there’s a lot of these farms that can be put up in the Iberian peninsula,” says Upfill-Brown. He says GreenFuel’s closed bioreactor system doesn’t need a lot of water and “it doesn’t have to be clean water either.”
The GreenFuel CEO wouldn’t disclose exact terms of the financial arrangement between the two companies, except to say that “we are receiving payments already” and that the rest is “based on us delivering milestones.” Once the plant is complete, GreenFuel will then be eligible to receive royalties tied to what the farm produces, he says.
Whatever the financial terms with Aurantia, it isn’t enough to fuel GreenFuel—which now has some 40 employees—at least in the short term. In May, the firm announced it had received $13.9 million in funding from existing investors that included Polaris Venture Partners, Access Private Equity, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson under an extension of its Series B round. But Upfill-Brown, a former Dow Chemical executive who joined the firm in July, says the company still needs to close a Series C financing round that he had hoped would have been done already. (Indeed, board chairman Bob Metcalfe of Polaris, then functioning as interim CEO, told us in June he had two potential term sheets on the table). Upfill-Brown says all existing investors are committed to the new round, but that the company is looking for a new group to lead it. “We’re putting the numbers together, and within a month or so we should be out trying to do that,” he says.
While there are still challenges ahead, both technically and in completing the financing, Upfill-Brown says he likes GreenFuel’s position. “We’ve got a number of deals in the works, but nothing really to talk about yet,” he says, echoing hints dropped in June by Metcalfe. The bigger challenge, he says, will be to avoid taking on too much too soon. Says he, “I think our focus is to make sure a couple of these really work.”