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abstract backgronudThe ALGIX story started in 1994 when Mike Van Drunen, ALGIX co-founder, started EPSI, a company in the business of automated liquid filling equipment. EPSI introduced to the world the first high speed automated aseptic filling line. This technology allowed packagers to convert from expensive, heavy glass containers, to the cheaper, lighter plastic container. The glass to plastic revolution has started and EPSI quickly grew into one of the premier packaging companies in the industry. And since the packaging sector is the largest market for plastics, this set the course for the massive plastic waste problem we have today.

By 2008, Mr. Van Drunen was on the look out for the a feedstock that could be used to help brand owners introduce more sustainable products to the market and put a stop to the ever growing problem of filling up land fills, lakes and oceans with plastic garbage.

In 2009, Mr. Van Drunen’s wife Lisa saw an article placed by the University of Georgia (UGA) looking for help in an algae research project. Mr. Van Drunen had specific experience in cell lysing that UGA was interested in. Mr. Ryan Hunt was the researcher that Mike was assigned to work with and the relationship between Mike and Ryan had begun which led to the founding of ALGIX in August of 2010.

Ryan PBR Page 1 Photo 1Meanwhile, in 2006, co-founder, Ryan Hunt, began researching the production of algae biomass as an alternative fuel source while an undergraduate physics student at the University of Georgia. In 2007, Mr. Hunt, and co-contributors, initiated the first algae research program at the University of Georgia’s Bioengineering department. Over the course of 4 years, Mr. Hunt’s small graduate student project blossomed into a multi-million dollar research effort within the Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program focusing on renewable biofuels and bioproducts from algae biomass.

After two years of intensive research, the team demonstrated the transesterification of algal oils from algae grown on carpet industry wastewater into biodiesel. However, it became clear that the high growth rates of algae were mutually exclusive with high oil contents in the harvested biomass. This meant that it would be challenging to grow algae for wastewater treatment and produce biofuels at the same time. Thus, we began to investigate alternative uses of the algae biomass.

 
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In 2009, collaborative research between the University of Georgia’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering and Department of Textiles, discovered that the post extracted algae biomass, also known as algae meal, could be converted into a thermoplastic-like material using heat and pressure from compression molding. The research collaboration led to intellectual property disclosures and peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. From these efforts, ALGIX was spun out of the University of Georgia through a collaboration with Mr. Mike Van Drunen in 2010 as a Limited Liability Company. ALGIX secured the option agreement for the pending intellectual property which facilitated further development work through an State of Georgia research grant from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA). The GRA VentureLabs grant allowed the Raceway Pond Page 3 Photo 1laboratory results to be scaled up on pilot scale plastic processing equipment, such as extrusion compounding and injection molding. Through this work, ALGIX was able to generate the much needed proof of concepts in the form of algae blended resin pellets and injection molded articles used to promote the new technology.

In early 2012, the first round of strategic investors came on board to help provide the capital to scale up operations from research to commercial production.  At this point, ALGIX had conducted two years of academic research and development generating the proof of concepts and engineering models for the building an algae plastic business . However, one of the primary limiting factors to the ALGIX business model was the procurement of large enough quantities of algae biomass to satisfy the scale of plastic converters and consumers. With the capital investment, research and development was accelerated to develop technology and processes for algae harvesting, particle size reduction, and plastic compounding to build the beginning of the algae feedstock supply chain and algae plastic industry. Through networking with other algae researchers and entrepreneurs, we began to realize that many of the algae biofuel projects were at small scale and taking a longer time than anticipated to expand to commercial scale. We began to search for the “low hanging fruit” for algae biomass supply. We set our target on two primary sources of biomass, namely wastewater treatment and aquaculture.

 

Catfish Pond Page 3 Photo 2In mid-2012, ALGIX initiated  collaboration for research and development of algae production with carpet industry wastewater with Dalton Utilities, in Dalton Georgia. Through additional networking, we identified both open and closed type algae biomass production systems for wastewater treatment. We realized the benefits of using algae as a tool to generate value by removing excess nutrients and pollutants to produce clean water and a renewable bio-based feedstock as a by-product. However, the algae biomass generated from some types of industrial wastewaters may not be suitable for animal feed or human consumption. Therefore, there are limited other uses for protein-rich biomass. Fertilizer has been the most common route for generating value. However, biopolymers and biomaterials represents a higher value use of the material. There are over 16,000 wastewater treatment facilities in the USA, which means that as a nation we could generate an enormous amount of renewable biomass just from our waste.

According to a 2012, (Catfish Pond Pic) USDA report, the number of aquaculture ponds in the southeast is over 90,000 acres. Upon learning this, we eagerly networked within the catfish community and we partnered with Dean Wilson Farms on a research and development project on pond side harvesting of Ashton Pondside Page 4 Photo 1wild microalgae growing in the catfish ponds. We learned that they can grow 8,000 catfish per acre and require significant fish feed for fast growth rates. The natural byproduct from feeding fish are food for rapidly growing algae cells. For every pound of fish produced, they were growing another pound of algae in the pond. The algae help clean the water and provide oxygen during the daytime through photosynthesis, but at night time, the algae breathe oxygen and can suffocate the fish if the water is not properly aerated. So, by harvesting the blooms, we can manage the algae levels and mitigate blooms, while returning super oxygenated water back to the pond and saving them energy from having to use conventional water aerators.

The wastewater and aquaculture R&D led to the development of a new division called ALGENT, which is dedicated to developing and deploying algae harvesting, dewatering and drying technologies. ALGENT started as an exercise of scaling up production. We developed numerous algae harvesting prototypes building off reading academic research papers, patents and, of course, using good old fashion trial and error. The original harvesters were hand built using many common components from nearby hardware stores working with what we had in remote rural Alabama.

Early units used gravity belt thickening, but by 2014, we demonstrated the second generation Dissolved Air Flotation unit capable of much higher throughputs and automated operation. Our first prototype algae harvester ran at 1 gallon per minute with rather low capture efficiency. We increased the flow rate of the harvesters  by systematically building and evolving prototypes as we ran and optimized them.

The new M2 Algae Harvester, that we developed, is a mobile platform capable of processing hundreds of gallons per minute, producing thousands gallons of algae slurry per day, containing up to a thousand pounds of algae once it is further dewatered and dried at the centralized plant.

 
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While searching for where to locate our first drying plant, we found a warehouse in the heart of catfish country that had been abandoned for over 12 years. Through much hard work, our growing team completed a grueling gutting and renovation. Over the next year, we converted the dilapidated building into a highly functional algae drying facility with a production potential of millions of pounds of dry algae per year.

In 2013, ALGIX expanded its quest for algae biomass acquisitions. We began buying algae from a wasterwater municipality in California that utilized an advanced open pond algae production system for primary, secondary and tertiary water treatment. Through building that relationship, we began making other connections and identifying additional water treatment facilities that could be future algae biomass suppliers to ALGIX for bioplastic production.

 
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20140310_093006In 2014, ALGIX Water Solutions was born and now has a team that investigates all our algae feedstock leads. Many of the other technology based algae production companies, particularly using photobioreactors, may be relatively early on in their development, and sometimes generating the samples needed for evaluation can be challenging. Nevertheless, we believe that there is value in investigating and understanding the competitive landscape in algae production. This approach has rewarded us with a wide variety of unique projects at various levels of development, ranging from lab scale to full commercial scale algae production. The numerous new sources of algae biomass we found allowed us to build a detailed product spec sheet and diverse portfolio of different types algae for research, nutraceutical and industrial applications. This became the basis of our algae brokering site, www.buyalgae.com, where researchers can order small to large quantities of professionally packaged algae biomass and bioproducts.

One of the geographic locations with both wastewater treatment needs, aquaculture opportunities and lots of sunlight and warm temperatures is Jamaica. During a scouting trip for wastewater opportunities near Negril, Jamaica, we discovered a large 150 acre fish farm in rural Jamaica that was going out of business and available for purchase. The facility is now the home of our newest company division, ALGIX Jamaica, where we have restored the property and are growing fresh Tilapia and Pangasius fish.

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ALGIX Jamaica office building
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Harvesting tilapia in Jamaica

We have hatchery operations for spawning our own fingerlings to seed our farm and sell to other farms within the Jamaica fish farm cooperative that we are (Jamaica workers pic) assembling. The abundance of sunlight, year-around warm weather, and fish wastewater makes the farm for a perfect storm of algae blooms that can be harvested with our ALGENT algae harvesting technology. The farm is capable of producing tens of millions of pounds of fresh sustainable fish and low cost algae biomass.

In 2014, ALGIX initiated the construction of the first algae plastic compounding plant in the world. We choose Meridian, Mississippi as our headquarters for Solaplast because of its located in the heart of the US catfish industry of Alabama and Mississippi. Starting from another empty shell of an old warehouse on the edges of town, and within 11 months converted it into a state-of-the art polymer compounding facility. The facility is 70,000 sqft and sits on 13 acres with direct rail and interstate access and only 3 hours from Mobile, Alabama’s ocean port. The Solaplast algae plastic production facility is dedicated to the custom compounding of bioplastics to fulfill the needs of our customers. Once fully built out with extrusion lines, the facility has the production potential of 200 million pounds of bioresin products per year.

Solaplast warehouse before

January, 2014

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November, 2014

On November 14, 2014, Solaplast held its’ Grand Opening for the public where we recreated the entire ALGIX business model and provided guided tours to learn about algae, fish, plastics and the environment.