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Boulder startup aims to turn waste CO2 from breweries into omega-3 oils

By Hank Schultz

06-Oct-2014
Last updated on 06-Oct-2014 at 17:38 GMT2014-10-06T17:38:56Z

Superior Ecotech's co-founders Daniel Higgs, right, and Phil Calabrese, left, discuss plans for the algae greenhouse with Upslope Brewery's founder Matt Cutter.

Superior Ecotech's co-founders Daniel Higgs, right, and Phil Calabrese, left, discuss plans for the algae greenhouse with Upslope Brewery's founder Matt Cutter.

A Boulder start-up aims to turn a waste stream from one value-added product—beer—into another: algal omega-3 oils.

Using a developing plug-and-play technology, the company, Superior Ecotech, is well along in its plan to install a $95,000 demonstration unit on the roof of Upslope Brewery in Boulder, CO.  The plan is to use the waste CO2 from the brewery’s fermenter to add nutrients to help the photosynthetic algae grow, said Superior Ecotech co-founder Daniel Higgs.  The idea came first from a student technology challenge, Higgs said.

Student challenges provide seed money

“We got together first as a student team from the University of Colorado Boulder for a business challenge.  I was doing my PhD in chemistry at Boulder.  We wrote a pitch for the compeittion using this idea and we won.  We thought then there might be something in this, a real business,” Higgs told NutraIngredients-USA.

Higgs said his four-person team also found seed money by winning a second competition, a clean tech challenge, with a prize of $100,000 offered by CU Boulder and the US Department of Energy.

“They liked the CO2 reduction aspect and the more efficient usage of water,” Higgs said.

The technology uses a special film on which algae is grown.

The company is designing a photobioreactor that is large enough to provide a reasonable economy of scale but small enough to be able—at least at the start—to be located on a brewery’s roof, lessening the need for additional footprint which might not be available at existing industrial sites.  According to the company, the unit’s design which cultivates the algae on a special film, provides for higher growth rates than competing technologies.  The other differentiator in the company’s technology is the use of proprietary coatings inside the chamber to filter ultraviolet and infrared portions of the spectrum. 

“Some UV can help algae growth but too much will inhibit it. In the summer, by rejecting the IR light, we could reduce the need for cooling,” Higgs said.  In winter, the plan is to use waste heat from the brewery’s boiler to warm the rooftop bioreactor.

“We have had a test reactor running at the University of Iowa for six months without a culture crash, which is significant,” he said.

Like many other existing and nascent algal ventures, Superior Ecotech’s model straddles the divide between biofuels and nutritional ingredients.  Capturing waste CO2 and turning it into fuel is a nice idea in theory, Higgs said.

“Everyone would like to make biofuels and save the world but up to now they have not been economically feasible,” Higgs said. “We are mining algae for carbohydrates, proteins, omega-3s and biofuel oils, and right now we are focused on omega-3s.”

Process efficiencies

One question that hovers over all algae enterprises is the issue of process efficiencies.  Algal cells are the origin of the omega-3 oils that are concentrated in the flesh of fish or other marine organisms.  So cutting out the middle man and going to the source has always made sense from that perspective. Nevertheless, algal ingredients have always struggled to compete with marine omega-3 sources in terms of cost.  Finding the chemical process efficiencies that allow algae to be grown at commercial scale and at a reasonable cost has tripped up more than one nascent algale company. How does Superior Ecotech plan to meet this challenge?

Higgs said the company is still refining its business model, and the pilot plant, expected to operational within seven or eight months, will provide valuable data.  The company is looking at a few larger sites next to bigger CO2 emitters, such as larger breweries, or a hub-and-spoke system with many smaller units.  One thing common to both is that Superior Ecotech plans to supply raw material to downstream extractors, and not produce the oil itself.  In the end, Higgs believes that the process will yield a viable ingredient for which there is a ready market.

“There are a lot of vegetarians and vegans out there.  We have spoken to some potential B2B customers and we believe that the added benefit of sustainability would be enough to balance out any higher costs. We expect the price to be competitive with the higher end of the omega-3 market,” Higgs said.

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