Department of Energy awards small businesses vouchers to work with Berkeley Lab

Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab/Courtesy

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The Department of Energy awarded eight small businesses vouchers to work with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on expediting the development of their clean energy technologies.

The small businesses will be assigned to work with two to five scientists from the Berkeley Lab and will gain access to the lab’s equipment. The DOE awarded a total of $1.1 million in vouchers to the businesses, with each voucher between $50,000 and $300,000.

“(Their projects are) all incredibly profound and they have such well-formed visions for where they want to go with their technology,” said Jodi Bellacicco, a program manager at the Berkeley Lab, of the recipients.

Small businesses are selected by the DOE based upon their potential for environmental impact and how well their proposal articulates their potential success, among other criteria, according to Bellacicco.

One recipient of the voucher is renewable chemical production company, ZymoChem. The Berkeley-based company deals with the production of adipic acid which is traditionally made from petroleum from genetically-engineered microbes.

“The Berkeley Lab (will help) ZymoChem and others move to the industrial level,” said Harshal Chokhawala, CEO and co-founder of ZymoChem. “Which is not something that a small company like Zymochem can afford (on its own).”

Adipic acid is used in the creation of nylon 66, which is common in carpets, water-resistant jackets and plastic car parts, Chokhawala said.

About three million metric tons of adipic acid are produced from petroleum per year. Not only is petroleum a nonrenewable resource, Chokhawala said, but the process of using it to develop adipic acid also releases nitrous oxide into the air, which has about 400 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide.

Chokhawala said that he expects to be able to produce adipic acid from microbes in commercial scales in about three to four years. According to Chokhawala, the voucher gives ZymoChem access to equipment and experience that will greatly expedite the commercialization process.

CEO Molly Morse, whose company Mango Materials Inc. received a $200,000 voucher, shared similar sentiments. The company, based in Albany, is currently working on feeding methane to naturally-occurring bacteria to create biopolymers.

Morse said that the company could use biopolymers to replace the use of polyethylene used in microbeads—tiny plastic particles often placed in toothpaste and face washes for cleansing or exfoliation.

Unlike polyethylene, the biopolymers are naturally biodegradable and will not persist in nature. According to Morse, however, it is difficult to compete against the use polyethylene because the material can be manufactured at high quantities for low costs.

“These are infrastructure scale issues,” Morse said. “All the sorts of programs that can make this easier are really important.”

Overall, the DOE awarded 43 small businesses $8 million worth of vouchers to work with five different national labs as part of its Small Business Vouchers pilot.

This is the second round of vouchers awarded as part of the pilot program. Four small businesses received vouchers to work with the Berkeley Lab earlier this year.

Aaron DeYonker, vice president of product and engineering for Lucid Design Group, said that receiving the voucher during the first round has cut the development time of the company’s product by more than half.

Lucid’s BuildingOS data and analytics platform is intended to measure the buildings’ performance, in categories such as energy use intensity, against other buildings in the area.

“The process added a layer of sophistication and building science to our product that has taken us to the next level in terms of capabilities,”  DeYonker said. “It wouldn’t even be possible without their help.”

Jessica Lynn is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Aaron DeYonker.