Micro-algae for energy and clean air – Benjamin Herzog, Johann Bauerfeind, SOLAGA

How would it be if a city would not consist out of grey and useless concrete facades but out of green and living facades? Tiny microalgae are living in these green facades and they are making energy in form of biogas out of light and CO2 and incidentally, they are also improving the air quality.

SOLAGA is the name of the startup from Berlin which is developing these living solar modules and for me, they are a great example, showing that you don’t only need a great idea but also a lot of patience and endurance for your startup. I met one of the founders, Johann Bauerfeind, for the first time in November 2015 at the FallingWalls Venture event(WUNDERDING-Interview 2015). Back then, it was a fresh idea that had only just left the lab and was first being used in “real life”. Now, two years later, Johann and Benjamin have presented their first prototype and even if there still is a long way ahead of them until there is such a thing as a green city, the prototype is an extremely important step that shows how they want to implement their idea. Here is our interview with the two SOLAGA-founders, Johann Bauerfeind and Benjamin Herzog.

WUNDERDING: Energy produced from algae, light and CO2 – sounds exciting. How did it all start?
Benjamin Herzog: First of all, we had to test our idea in the lab. Is it possible at all to make biogas with the help of microalgae in a two-step procedure? We succeeded. That means that we’re able to generate biogas from sunlight and CO2. Based on these tests, we’ve now built our first lab-scale prototype, which we’ll test in the field next year in cooperation with our partner GASAG.

WUNDERDING: How did your idea change in the process?
Benjamin Herzog: In the beginning, we only had flat lying panels with a very low energy expenditure, as the pumping capacity is very low and the fluid stream travels rather slowly through the module. Then we thought, okay, if we make vertical panels, we’ll have a very high fluid stream and that could lead to problems. We nevertheless did it and saw that it worked. The distribution still takes place and it opens up a lot more possibilities. We’ve spoken with many architects and they’ve said that they’d like to make such a facade. So, we could take an unused facade and make it into a living facade on which biogas is produced actively.

WUNDERDING: Could I also install one of these panels at home?
Benjamin Herzog: You could see also see it as a decorative element. It is like a painting that you hang up at home. Many people are fascinated by this vitality, similar to a house plant that takes a bit of the cold away from a room and gives warmth. It has the additional aspect that it also purifies the air, as it takes up CO2 and produces oxygen. It also results in humidity that is given off into the room. Therefore, it would be advantageous for the climate of the room.

WUNDERDING: Founders encounter a myriad of challenges. What did you achieve and what are the big and small challenges in the life of a founder?
Benjamin Herzog: The vertical design that we’ve now managed to make, is a milestone in the development. Next to the technical development, the organisation always is a major theme. We continuously have to keep looking for grants and, in addition, our algae also need to be fed in the lab and a thousand other things need to be done. Coordinating all that actually is quite a big challenge for me each day. I’d like to simply go and mix everything together and work with the algae but often something always comes in between – very practical things such as a tax declaration or finishing the writing of a grant application – and these are things which are tricky to coordinate with each other. We had to learn how to do this in the beginning und by now, we have a kind of routine. It isn’t always optimal and maybe we’ll one day reach the point when we’ll say, now we have to separate these things: one of us does the developmental work and the other one does the management. We’re sadly not there yet, we’re still a very small enterprise – we are two founders, several interns and a few interested colleagues which help us.

WUNDERDING: What are the next steps now for your prototype?
Johann Bauerfeind:
  We’re building our pilot project for the research of microalgae systems in the urban space on the EUREF campus and with the Ufafabrik Berlin, but we’re also very busy with optimising our systems. We’ve asked Prof. Paul Hudson from Stockholm – an expert in microalgae who is also working in synthetic biology -for help with this. This is why I am in Stockholm at the moment. Amongst others, I’m currently developing a screening method which enables us to cultivate better microalgae biofilms. And next year, we want to launch our first product in cooperation with the investor group KIC InnoEnergy and that way we want to install more of our microalgae biofilms in urban spaces.

WUNDERDING: Many thanks for the interesting and honest insight into your life as founders!

We’ll be reporting again from the FallingWalls Venture event in Berlin on the 8th of November.

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