Deep beneath the sea, algae trap light by growing tiny glass shells. Now a Swedish startup is turning them into super-efficient solar panels
By: Liz Longden
Where does the future of energy lie? For Sofie Allert, it’s in the freezing depths of the Nordic oceans – where she harvests algae that can supercharge solar panels.
Allert is CEO and co-founder of The Swedish Algae Factory, a commercial research lab which farms a type of algae called diatoms. These single cell entities are able to thrive in low light, thanks to one extraordinary ability: they can make their own shell made of glass.
Many millennia ago, in the Triassic or early Jurassic period, diatoms discovered that growing shells out of silica – silicon dioxide, the primary ingredient of most glass – helped them photosynthesis light much more efficiently. The shells are arranged in layers that form funnel-like structures. These capture and channel visible light, even in the murky waters deep underneath the surface of the sea.
By extracting these microscopic shells and incorporating them into solar panels, Allert and her team can increase the panels’ efficiency – by four per cent with silicon-based panels and by a staggering 60 per cent with dye sensitised solar cells.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which nominated The Swedish Algae Factory a potential “Climate Solver” earlier this year, if the technology penetrated 30 per cent of the market by 2027, global greenhouse emissions could be reduced by 21 million tons of CO2 annually – equivalent to just under four and a half million petrol cars being driven for a year.
Allert’s fascination with algae began as a biotechnology undergraduate. Before long, however, she realised that her future lay not in doing research, but in translating innovation into marketable reality. “I had such frustration that there were so many good ideas that really could benefit society that never came out on the market and ended up just being research,” she explains. “So there was a real gap there, and I wanted to be part of that gap.”
A Masters at Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship followed and it was there she met Angela Wulff, professor of marine ecology at Gothenburg University, who introduced Allert to a species of diatom able to grow beneath the Arctic ice. Allert was “blown away” and in 2014 The Swedish Algae Factory was born, with Allert appointed CEO at the tender age of 24.
In 2017, the Gothenburg-based startup – which has just four employees, including Allert – received funding from the Swedish Energy Agency. Part of the pitch was the range of uses for diatom shells, which can be used for environmentally-friendly sunscreen, organic absorbents for skincare, fertilisers, and even water treatment, since the algae remove nitrogen and phosphorus from the wastewater of fish farms.
“What we saw was that there were a lot of amazing applications, but someone needs to scale it up and actually provide this material,” Allert explains. It’s no small task, given that it takes a cultivation area of around 3,000 square metres to produce one ton of shells. But the startup’s first commercial facility is currently under construction and aiming to begin producing diatoms for sale to the cosmetics and skincare industry in early 2018.
A third is pencilled in for 2019/20 and from there the company is hoping to spread faster than an algal bloom – by 2030 Allert and her team aim to have no less than 30 factories running across Europe.