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Artveoli combines algae and microfluidics to generate fresh air indoors

TechCrunch TechCrunch 9/05/2016 Natasha Lomas

Live in any major city, be it London, Paris, Los Angeles or Shanghai, and you’ll be all too aware that air pollution is a huge and growing problem. At the same time indoor air quality can suffer because of attempts to reduce buildings’ energy consumption to make them less pollutive to the outdoor environment — by, for example, applying high grade insulation and recirculating indoor air to reduce heat loss/lower air conditioning systems’ energy needs. Very well sealed buildings can lead to elevated CO2 levels as more people gather indoors. So how to square this circle?

Step forward Artveoli, a biotech startup that’s building an air purifying device that aims to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in indoor environments, such as offices and homes, by harnessing the photosynthetic properties of algae. ‘It’s like having trees inside buildings’, is Artveoli’s elevator pitch. The startup is officially launching on stage here at TechCrunch Disrupt New York, opening registrations for people to sign up for updates.

The aim is to start manufacturing its first air purifying product this year, says co-founder Alina Adams — with a view to shipping the device sometime in 2017. Adams has a background in microfluidics, the core technology which it’s applying to increase the efficiency of the algae to enable a single unit to have an impact on the room where it is placed — having worked at the Stanford Microfluidics Foundry, along with her co-founder.

Microfluidics refers to a field of research that looks at how fluids behave differently at the microscale and how those differences can be exploited for particular use-cases. “It’s a new type of technology that makes biochemical processes much easier, faster, it’s easier to control and work with the different, complex biological systems,” explains Adams.

“I was thinking, we have plants that make fresh air so how can we put lots and lots of plants inside buildings?” she adds, discussing how the idea for the business was born. “This was an ah-ha moment — ok nobody is actually using microfluidics devices to grow photosynthetic type of cells to make fresh air.”

An existing technology — photobioreactors — uses a light source to cultivate phototropic microorganisms, such as algae, generating biomass from light and carbon dioxide. But these units tend to need to be very large in order to generate a large amount of biomass. Artveoli’s founders’ mental leap was to wonder whether they could grow the same type of phototropic cells on the micro-scale — so very, very densely packed, and thus able to pump out more oxygen.

“We’re working with small channels and small volumes, so we’re working with chips that are easier to manipulate small volume type of liquids. High density means we’re using cell concentrations inside our system that are much, much more significant than those that you’d find even in traditional bioreactors.

“So we have these nature-type of systems inside that metabolically produces oxygen and removes carbon dioxide… Light powers the system. And because we have this large surface area and high density that’s how we’re able to achieve significantly higher outputs for carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production than traditional trees.”

Adams says NASA has already looked at using the same type of algae it is putting inside its microfluidic high-density photobioreactors to power closed, self-sustaining systems to produce oxygen for astronauts on long space missions. However the problem they ran into was making those systems efficient enough.

“They’re not able to get this efficiency because they’re using larger volumes. That’s where microfluidic technology eliminates that problem. With microfluidic technology we have more control and we have the higher efficiency so they can work with higher densities,” she adds.

“We’re actually talking to Darpa — they are interested in potential future applications for this technology — because we are able to produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide in closed spaces. Which is essential if you’re limited on the air supply from outside.”

Artveoli’s device is also a closed system (which lowers the risk of contamination), with the algae contained inside transparent, microfluidic plastic chips and the necessary nutrients (plus light, via an LED backlit panel) fed to them via a built-in control system. This allows for control of cell density (and therefore unit efficiency), including by controlling the rate of introduction of new algae, based on the growth rates of the existing population.

The particular microalgae being used by Artveoli has been selected because it has a high photosynthetic efficiency, says Adams. “We introduce the right proportions of media — that’s part of the control that we have, so we can have a very stable system.”

The algae won’t live forever of course, even given ideal conditions provided for them in a closed system, so there is a need to remove waste (i.e. dead) algae from the units by replacing filters in the units and also replenish with fresh microalgae over time. But the aim is to make this process very simple — similar to putting a new ink cartridge in a printer, says Adams.

“We remove the excess biomass, or bioproduct waste, which is basically dead algae,” she says. “And introducing — similar to printer cartridge models — you put in new media.

“There’s no periods whenever there’s no algae in the system so it’s continuously recirculating and introducing new media and removing the excess and dead cells/debris out with the cartridges.”

These (biodegradable) cartridges will need to be replaced three to four times per year, providing for a recurring revenue stream for the business. The cost of the cartridges will be similar to the price of new filters for existing air purifying machines, according to Adams.

The units themselves will be custom built and installed for commercial customers, so will vary in size and price — although Adams says again pricing will be in the ballpark of existing air purifier devices, so “from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand”.

Selling to the commercial market is the startup’s first push, with the clearest use-case being offices where lots of people gather for long periods of time, reckons Adams. But the team also intends to build a product for the consumer market down the line, although decisions about form factor and how to design these units are yet to be made.

The number of units that a buyer might need will depend on building occupancy but Adams says the goal is to build systems that can create enough oxygen for one person, so in a house with four-occupants you’d need four systems. (Albeit, the more custom configurations it’s envisaging creating for commercial buyers might change those ratios, depending on the size of individual units.)

On the design front, Artveoli is partnering with designers to be able to offer buyers a printed cover for the units, in addition to potentially offering other cover options — even such as a touchscreen or a whiteboard, which would obviously be useful in an office environment. The units will also contain embedded wi-fi sensors so gas exchange levels can be monitored.

The units themselves resemble flat-screen TV panels in terms of form factor at this point, according to Adams, but she says the team is also researching alternative multi-layered configurations to be able to build devices with other form factors in future — such as the box-shaped units typical of existing air purifier products, so it could potentially be portable.

Why the name Artveoli? Alveoli is the name of the tiny air sacs clustered in bunches inside the lungs where the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. The density of alveoli in the lungs provides a very large surface area, allowing for the body to get enough oxygen into the blood to sustain life.

It’s a similar density principle behind Artveoli’s microfluidics technology which maximizes the surface to volume ratio. Artveoli is also, of course, a play on words — with the ‘Art’ in the title referring to the idea of incorporating designers’ works onto the front of the panel so the unit can be a feature in and of itself, if buyers so wish.

Artveoli incorporated last September, after starting out doing tests and building prototypes in a garage. They have been bootstrapping the first stage of development — including building their first system — but are now looking to raise funding to pay for manufacturing units to take to market. Adams says the amount they’re aiming to raise will depend on how much interest they see via sign-ups but their initial aim is to raise between $3M and $5M at this stage of the business.

The long term vision is not carbon dioxide consuming devices that are hung on walls or even moved around different rooms, but rather walls that are themselves breathing out oxygen — with the technology embedded directly into buildings.

However that’s going to require a lot more work to bring to market, looping in architects and mechanical engineers, and needing to comply with standards/buildings regulations. Hence Artveoli taking a device based (and modular/custom) approach with their first line of hardware.

“On the functionality level it will be more efficient to have it embedded, because that way we can have it more controlled and for the replacement of cartridges and filters there’s more opportunities to make it a bit more efficient, as part of the building. But to be honest, it’s at least five years til we get to something because it’ll have a bunch of product iterations. It also depends on working with architects and designers.”

Another future hope is to integrate the technology with Nest smart home devices so they could be used to control the units. “Our system is smart in itself but it would be good to integrate it with an existing network of appliances and devices so they could control that as well,” adds Adams.

If you’re wondering if microalgae-based oxygen production air purifiers have an off switch, the answer is yes — kind of. Switching the LED lights off will ‘power’ the unit down, however you can’t keep the lights off indefinitely or the algae will die. Adams says the microorganisms would probably manage for a few weeks without light — so just enough time for a family vacation.

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