"I should mention, too, this innovation center (ITEC) here has been a blessing to us," Bartilson says.
Photon8 isn't the only company researching algae-to-biodiesel, though it may be more focused on economic feasibility than some others. In order words, it has to turn a profit. Studying other researchers' methods and claims, Bartilson found that the cost of production far exceeded projected revenue because of capital costs: the physical equipment necessary to do the work.
"Regardless of what anybody does with genetics or anything else, this capital cost has to be down in single digits," Bartilson says. "That's when I invented this photo-bio reactor and started developing it, because nothing else matters if I don't get the capital costs down."
Grossly oversimplified, Photon8's method calls for a closed, transparent infrastructure spread out over a large land area and containing a circulating algae "broth" that's exposed to sunlight in order to produce the oily lipids, which are then harvested for biodiesel production.
University collaboration was one of the conditions for receiving money from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. Bartilson's team is working with University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College faculty members Tamara Pease, a professor of chemistry and environmental science (who just happens to be an expert on algae growth dynamics and lipid analysis), and Danielle Provenzano, a professor of biological sciences assisting Photon8 with genetics.
Pease says the Photon8 project is a "tremendous opportunity" not just for her chemistry and environmental science students but also business and engineering students to get hands-on experience with a high-tech start-up company. The timing of Photon8's arrival is perfect, since her department was already developing a master's degree program in sustainability studies with the departments of engineering and business, she says.