Finding a Better Strain of Slime

Chevron Corp. and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory said Wednesday they are teaming up on a research and development project to improve transportation fuels using algae.

Researchers are eyeing algae as a potential feedstock for next-generation biofuels because certain species contain high amounts of lipids (read: oil) that can be extracted, processed and refined into fuel.

The agreement between Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and the government lab will look to identify and improve upon algae strains that can yield the fats needed to make liquid energy like jet fuel and biodiesel.

The collaboration is part of a five-year biofuel research alliance announced in 2006 between Chevron and the lab. Although Chevron is financing the efforts, the company would not disclose how much it's invested in the algae project or the overall collaboration.

The two aren't the only ones looking to bring algae-derived biofuels to the mass market. Companies such as GreenFuel Technologies, which uses algae to convert smokestack emissions into biofuels, and LiveFuels, which turns algae into biocrude, also are working to make it happen.

But big hurdles still lie in the way. "At current, nobody has it quite right," said George Douglas, a spokesperson for NREL.

That's because the technology is too expensive so far. Algae strains that can produce a lot of oil at a reasonable price will be key to reaching a significant part of the market.

The announcement marks the first time in 10 years that NREL will be "actively" researching transportation fuels from algae, Douglas said. In 1996, the lab cut an 18-year-long program focused on biodiesel production from algae growth in ponds because it didn't think the technology was economically viable.

But with oil prices breaching $90 per barrel (see Is $90 Oil Good for Greentech?) and advances in microbiology, algae-derived fuel is looking more appealing and plausible today.

Bad For Batteries, Good For Atraverda

Battery makers may be fuming over the skyrocketing cost of lead, but at least one startup says it has benefited handily. And it's hoping a new funding infusion will help maintain that momentum.

South Wales-based Atraverda said Wednesday it had pulled in $21.5 million in a second round of funding. Atraverda has developed a ceramic-based material it calls Ebonex that can be used as a single electrode that acts as both the positive and negative sides of a battery. It can reduce the amount of lead required for batteries by as much as 50 percent, the company said.

A year ago, Atraverda was promoting Ebonex as a tool to create high-performance batteries, boosting energy efficiency significantly. But with the cost of lead up 80 percent in the past year, according to price indexes, and battery manufacturers feeling pressured to reduce carbon emissions from manufacturing, the company's main selling points have shifted.

"We were always about the performance benefit, but the tide is beginning to change with lead prices up so dramatically along with the interest in carbon footprints," said CEO Andrew Dixey. "Timing is a wonderful thing, and what's unfortunate for the battery industry has aided us enormously."

That atmosphere has created a flurry of activity for Atraverda over the last year, Dixey said. New customers testing its materials include the United States' East Penn Manufacturing, India's Exide Industries Limited and Ukraine's Vladar Enterprise.

Atraverda -- which raised its first round of around $12 million at the end of 2004 -- will spend its funding infusion to build a production facility to keep up with demand, Dixey said.

The international group of funders includes Denmark's BankInvest New Energy Solutions, Portugal's Espirito Santo Ventures. Existing investors include Scottish Equity Partners, Chord Capital and Finance Wales from the United Kingdom and EnerTech Capital and OnPoint Technologies from the United States.

Next Center for Clean Energy: Singapore?

Germany, Spain, Sweden … and now Singapore? If recent announcements are any indication, the Asian island nation would like to join those European countries as a center of clean-energy production. But getting there would be a tough haul.

On Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported that the country's Economic Development Board said it would contribute $34.5 million to fund research on clean energy, including solar power. Singapore had previously announced that it would spend around $230 million on clean-energy resources over five years.

The news comes on the heels of last week's announcement that Singapore had been selected as the site of a $4.3 billion production facility from the Norwegian Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) that will seek to become the largest wafer-, cell- and panel-manufacturing complex in the world.

In a statement, REC said it chose Singapore because of its tax incentives, research and development grants and recruitment and training resources.

"Singapore had articulated an exciting vision and plan to develop the solar industry as a key growth area for its economy," said REC CEO Erik Thorsen in a statement.

The country will start accepting proposals for solar-energy research projects on Friday and may later open up calls for proposals in fuel cells, wind and hydropower, AFP reported.

Nice start for Singapore, but matching the most ambitious countries' cleantech investments could prove difficult. Germany's Ministry for the Environment alone, for example, plans to spend $140 million annually in research and development by 2009, according to a recent Greentech Media research report.