Weatherford Democrat


January 25, 2010

Entrepreneur seeks algae-to-fuel conversion key

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — And God said, "Let there be light: and there was light," according to the Book of Genesis, although He might have added, "especially in South Texas."

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is sunshine-rich, a major factor behind Brad Bartilson's decision to relocate to Brownsville from New Jersey. Bartilson is not working on his tan. He's president and CEO of Photon8, a start-up company researching economically feasible methods for turning algae into biodiesel as an alternative to fossil fuel. For algae to produce the oily "lipids" required for biodiesel, it's got to be bombarded by sunlight — lots of it.

"From a photonic standpoint, New Jersey had 30 percent less photons per square meter falling than here," Bartilson says.

Photons are the elementary particles that make light, thus the company's name: Photon8. As it turns out, it takes eight photons to "fixate" one hydrocarbon molecule, something that has to happen in order for algae to make biodiesel. Seven won't cut it. In addition to photons, Bartilson needed proximity to seawater and vast expanses of cheap land on which to build an algae farm. He found what he was looking for on a Realtors Web site.

"I looked at where could I find large tracts of land close to the ocean, and South Texas came up," Bartilson says. "That was the start of my looking around down here."

An associate tipped him off about the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, from which Photon8 recently received $1 million — another big incentive. Until the first ETF check arrived, Bartilson had to use his own savings to keep his team of researchers together. Plus, the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation stepped in with $300,000.

Bartilson's core team members, each lured from outside Texas, are Dinesh Arora, the chief technology officer, Stephen Greer, an expert in algae genetics and chemical ecology, and Lance W. Riley, an expert in algae nutrients and growth system development. Students in varioud departments at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College are also taking part in the research.

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