For his sixth-grade science experiment, Redondo Union High School graduate John Walsh did what many students have done in the past - stick two probes of copper wire into a potato, combine it with a light bulb and other materials, and presto: he had a potato battery.
But Walsh, who graduated in 2012 and now attends San Diego State University, took that experiment to another level last year when he and Kevin Segal, another 2012 Redondo grad, formed Grow Energy, which uses algae to create electricity and heat for homes.
"I figured there has to be some way you can do that on a household," said Walsh of his grade-school experiment. "I did some research and I tried to find what would allow that, and algae is one of the fastest growing organisms on our planet. It doubles in its cell density daily and it's comprised of roughly 50 to 70 percent lipid content per select strain. When we selected that, it just came to hiring our engineering team. Then the ball went rolling from there."
The startup company's first system is named Verde, which "employs a clean combustion process to burn algal biomass" and is carbon neutral.
Its photobioreactors, or algae panels, like solar panels, mount onto the home's roof, where algae grows by "utilizing recycled elements and nutrients in a closed-loop process," according to Segal, who is the chief operating officer of Grow Energy and runs his own company, Segal Holdings. They expect Verde to reach the mainstream homeowner market in 2015.
Walsh added: "Regardless of the amount of energy you produce, it does not create a carbon footprint whatsoever. ... We're growing algae in a concentrated environment, creating an optimum environment for it to grow and then our patented combustion technology burns the algae, runs the steam turbine.
But all the byproducts of the system are the exact nutrients in which algae needs to grow, so we recycle the carbon byproduct back into the system ... and it just continues the process."
Grow Energy already has noted scientists and researchers on board as well as a board that includes Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and U.S. secretary of energy. Joining the team last summer was Redondo Beach resident Joey Mendelsohn as its vice president of business development.
"I've been interested in sustainability my entire life ... it's just my passion," Mendelsohn said. "It's something that I believe in and having a renewable energy source that not only allows people to have electricity, but also cleans the environment, which our process has been able to do, is exciting."
While algae has been "widely researched" in the area of biofuels, it hasn't come to the forefront until the past five to six years, according to Walsh. Solar and wind has dominated the discussion for years, but he feels that is about to change for several reasons.
"Solar panels after their lifespan are very hazardous," Walsh said. "Silicon and the semiconductors behind it are not only hazardous to produce but equally hazardous to dismantle and dispose of after its life span."
Segal added, "Even though it's clean when it generates electricity, it still damages the environment slightly ... our system is built using natural components and bioplastics, which means not only is it carbon neutral and it doesn't pollute, but it's actually much healthier for the environment to produce."
It is also designed to be "minimally invasive" and compact, being "no more intrusive to a home's aesthetics than solar technology," according to Segal.
Walsh said there are several ways people can extract energy from algae, and he feels they've selected the most efficient method that is applicable to households.
Today, Grow Energy has a facility in France where algae growth technology is being designed, and the company has researchers in Texas. This summer, the hope is to move headquarters to San Diego, which is a hotbed of algae biotech and energy research. San Diego State is one of the few centers for algae biotechnology in the country.
Right now they feel they are "riding a wave of growing publicity" when it comes to algae.
"Just last week the first algae power building was announced in Germany and it's only using heat energy from the sun, which isn't what we're doing, and it's low energy at that, it's not completely sustained," Segal said. "There's a lot more technology growing in this area. A year from now you're going to see a lot more of this and hopefully we'll be at the forefront."
"We believe that no one is going to change to green energy unless its cheaper for them to do so, so what we're trying to do is to provide homeowners with an economic solution to alternative energy, something that's comparable in costs for kilowatt hours than a traditional coal plant," Walsh said. "Once we're able to achieve that, I believe that's when everybody will stand to make a switch because they're not going to find a reason not to."
For more information, visit www.growenergy.org.