Jul 11, 2023

Using electric algae, ancient proteins and more, start

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The world’s oceans produce 50 percent of our oxygen, absorb 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and capture 90% of the excess heat generated by those emissions, according to the United Nations.

They regulate our climate and weather, and support services — from shipping and fishing to energy — that combined would constitute the seventh-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

But the seas are under huge pressure, from climate change, pollution and over-exploitation. Israeli tech companies are among those trying to find sustainable solutions.

On Wednesday, some of them presented their innovations at the first Blue Tech Summit, at the port of Haifa in the north.

The summit was organized by the National Center of Blue Economy, established a year ago within the framework of a partnership between the Israeli government and the European Union to develop a strategy for sustainable management of the oceans.

With funding from the Haifa Municipality, the center supports 14 early-stage start-ups in its accelerator at the port and is creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and environmental groups in Israel and overseas.

More than 300 people attended the confab, including delegations from Portugal, India, South Korea, Japan and Greece.

Among the companies exhibiting — all of which aim to create income for customers through carbon credits — were the following:

Established in August 2020 by two Israeli Navy veterans, and based in Haifa, Nayam Wings is developing a wind propulsion system for shipping, one of the hardest industries to decarbonize.

The company says that its asymmetrical sails, which incorporate aircraft technology, can cut fuel costs (and emissions) by 15% to 25% if retrofitted, and 35% if installed on a new ship.

Suitable for any flat deck vessel weighing 5,000 tons or more, the computer-adjusted sails move to precisely catch the wind. According to co-founder and COO Avishay Parker, similar, but symmetrical, sails being developed elsewhere in the world reduce fuel costs by just 5-8%.

Having performed two proof of concept tests with Energy Ministry funds, Nayam Wings — whose tech was invented by aeronautical engineer, co-founder and CTO Amnon Asscher — is currently seeking to match a NIS 3.2 million ($865,000) grant from the Israel Innovation Authority to build a full-scale prototype.

“Today, the options for cutting carbon emissions are either reducing speed or installing costly, inefficient scrubbers (filters),” Parker said.

ElectricAlgae was created just a couple of weeks ago to commercialize research carried out at Haifa’s Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. The Technion team discovered that the electrical current in seaweed (macroalgae) is similar to that found in a photovoltaic solar cell. Unlike a solar panel, though, which produces electricity only when the sun shines, seaweed continues to produce it in the dark, albeit at around half the strength as during the day.

According to co-founder and vice president for business development Meytal Katz, the metal-based electrodes the company uses to harvest energy from the seaweed are much easier to scale up than PV cells.

Today, seaweed is cultivated for a variety of applications, from food and cosmetics to plastic alternatives.

A seaweed grower who integrates the ElectricAlgae technology can earn extra money by generating electricity, Katz said.

The company is raising its first seed round to carry out an initial proof of concept on a 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) bed of seaweed, in the hope of developing a prototype to show to potential investors.

Industry spends an annual $4 trillion removing microbial film from humanmade surfaces such as desalination plant membranes, cooling towers and ships hulls, according to marine microbiologist Dr. Amir Zlotkin.

The material of choice is usually toxic to the bacteria and the environment.

Zlotkin has isolated a protein that he discovered exists in all living creatures, from sea urchins to humans, a part of which “tells” microbes not to stick themselves on. He has developed a synthetic peptide that can either be used alone to clean surfaces, in cases where the microbes don’t need to be killed, or added to antimicrobial compounds, where total sterilization is required. His product can help chemical companies under regulatory pressure to lower the concentration of their biocides for environmental reasons, without compromising effectiveness, Zlotkin explained.

He has been working on the technology since 2009, although he only set up DisperseBio in 2021, in Tel Aviv.

His invention is currently being trialed for proof of concept by DuPont Water Solutions, ICL (formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd.), the Israeli irrigation company Netafim (which experiences biofilm in its pipes), National Paints, located in the United Arab Emirates, and ACCIONA, which builds and operates desalination plants, including in the Arabian Gulf.

Marine microbes are responsible for removing large amounts of human-generated carbon dioxide emissions, Zlotkin said. If you kill the bacteria, you reduce the seas’ ability to capture carbon.

One of the key challenges of renewable energy is that electricity is not produced by solar panels when the sun doesn’t shine or by wind turbines when the air is still.

The traditional methods of storing energy are through pumped storage hydropower, or air compression. The former requires a mountain from which the water can flow down. The latter usually uses depleted gas reservoirs, where residual organic matter can cause complications.

Compressing air for energy storage on land is expensive, according to BaroMar’s CEO, Yonadav Buber. At scale, it would require a lot of land, and a large, costly, tank requiring thick walls to ensure that the compressed air doesn’t explode.

BaroMar’s innovation is to use the ample, and cost-free, space on the ocean floor, far beneath where most marine plants and creatures live, and to match the atmospheric pressure in the water with the pressure in the tank containing the air.

“If I go down 400 meters (1,300 feet), I have pressure of 40 atmospheres and I’m pumping air at 40 atmospheres, so my tank can be very simple,” Buber explained.

The company uses an off-the-shelf generator, compressor and turbine. When there’s too much energy for the grid to handle, energy is used to compress air and store it underwater. When the energy is needed, the air is pumped back and used to run the turbine, to create energy again.

Batteries for energy storage are expensive, have environmental problems, need a lot of space and can usually store energy just for four hours, Buber went on.

By contrast, energy can be stored in compressed air on the seabed for as long as the grid operator wishes, he added.

The company, set up in January last year, and based in Kfar Monash in the northern Jordan Valley, raised seed finance three months ago. It plans to perform proof of concept in Israel or Cyprus and to commercialize the solution in the next couple of years.

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