A Fresh Start
Sears, an engineer-turned-inventor, started developing his algae-fuel technology in 2004, but the events that inspired his venture stretch back to the last time the U.S. faced an energy crisis. In 1978 President Carter established the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), a research initiative charged with developing biodiesel from algae as a clean, homegrown alternative to gasoline. Yet some two decades and $25 million later, the team had failed to produce any significant amount of oil from algae, and in 1996 the Clinton administration axed the program. Still, the researchers hoped their work would not go to waste. "The directors were adamant that we make available a detailed summary of what we'd done, because they knew that in the future someone would be interested," says John Sheehan, a former ASP project scientist. Sheehan and his colleagues compiled a 328-page report on their work and uploaded it to a Department of Energy Web site.
At the time, Sears was working on a smorgasbord of projects in his garage, including a cattle "hump-o-meter" (his term) intended to tell farmers when their animals were mating. He had spent time as an engineer with the Navy in the 1980s, designing, among other things, sonar equipment that helped SEAL divers find pieces of the space shuttle Challenger wreck. During this stint he made an unforgettable nighttime dive off the coast of Florida. As he treaded water, streams of phosphorescent algae drifted past him, tracing trails of light in the murk as far as he could see.
Two decades later, Sears, looking for a new project, found himself reliving that one sublime dive. He wondered if algae like that could create enough energy to help solve the fuel crisis. A little online research turned up the ASP report.
It was a revelation. Sears pored over the "Algae Bible," as he now calls it, for weeks, determined to find the reason for the gap between the program's potential and its results. "I started thinking, "Well, if this is as great as it sounds, why aren't we all driving around with algae fuel in our tanks?'" He noticed that ASP researchers had tried to grow the unique oil-producing algae in open ponds, which were far cheaper to maintain than closed systems like a sealed aquarium. But wild algae quickly invaded these open ponds and took over, outcompeting their obese counterparts.
Sears's solution was inspired by the most humble of kitchen implements, the Ziploc bag. Clear plastic sacks, he realized, would let in enough light to help the algae thrive yet prevent unwanted species from invading. The crux of his innovation is his design for a full-scale algae "reactor." Two 350-foot-long parallel tracks about three feet apart hold the bags in place. Custom-built rollers occasionally squeeze them like tubes of toothpaste, circulating the algae; a current gives them the intermittent sun exposure they need to flourish. Once the algae is grown, a refinery extracts its oil and converts it to biodiesel.
Sears tried to sell his idea to venture capitalists and found them skeptical at best. In an effort to shore up his credibility, Sears approached Bryan Willson, the director of Colorado State University's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. The first time Sears visited the lab-housed in the converted Old Fort Collins power plant-he knew he had found a kindred spirit. When they sat down together to go over the Algae Bible, Sears recalls, they each produced their own well-worn copy. "I had tons of yellow stickies on mine, and he had tons of yellow stickies on his." Sears convinced Willson (along with his gaggle of graduate students) to sign on to the project and join his fledgling company.single page