The Israeli Bioconvergence Revolution: Green Clean Water

Shopping bags made using seaweed? Fish that grow in the desert? The connection between the various worlds of science creates a surprising reality. Take, for example, Biotic that strives to replace polluting fossil plastics with a biological polymer, using seaweed as feedstock and BioCastle that developed a miniature filter which enables to clean contaminated water quickly and efficiently.

We all have pangs of conscience when taking another plastic bag at the supermarket or throwing another bottle away. Plastic, that byproduct of the oil industry which has become an integral part of modern life, is also one of the biggest threats to ecology and the environment.

Our obsession with plastic and its high environmental toll bothered Adi Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Biotic. “Like many people, my partner and I are worried about the world’s future ecosystem”, Goldman says. “We founded Biotic in 2020 to address the plastic problems”.

“The world is full of plastic, so to tell consumers to stop using packaging or bags is a bit like scratching the floor and expecting to find sand. We articulate our objective as ‘envisioning a world where plastic is no longer a concern’”.

The two initially surveyed different technologies and possible substitutes for the plastic that is currently used, such as paper, metal, glass, and bamboo. They collated the success and failures of each method and searched for a solution that wasn’t only scalable i.e., can contend with increasing quantities, but which also provides general environmental values. That’s how they arrived at seaweed.

Biotic’s technology sounds simple: they extract the sugars that exist in fresh seaweed – sea lettuce seaweed is used here in Israel – and feed them into self-manufactured tanks in which a process of microbial fermentation is performed i.e., fermentation with micro-organisms. The cost of the tanks the company has constructed is a fraction of that of bioreactors commonly used in the industry. Moreover, due to the tank’s design, the energy cost has been drastically cut.

The micro-organisms digest the sugar and, just as people develop fat, the micro-organisms grow a polymer inside their cell that serves as an energy bank for them. This is where Biotic enters the picture by “harvesting” the micro-organisms from the tanks and extracting the polymer.

The polymer is considered “natural polyester”. This is a thermoplastic substance, a copolymer, that consists of two units, controlling the ratio between the units which sets the polymer characteristics, such as the level of rigidity or flexibility. A very low ratio creates a polymer that is suitable for rigid things such as furniture. As the ratio increases, the substance becomes more flexible until it can be used as fibers for clothes, nylon, packaging etc.

“The beauty of this method is that because the polymer constitutes a layer of energy for bacteria and micro-organisms, it does not remain in its industrial state like plastic does, but rather, is digested in any heavy microbial environment (such as sea, trash, soil, etc.) and biodegrades. When this polymer biodegrades, it leaves no residues – no microplastics, no chemicals, nothing. It all returns to nature”, says Goldman.

“The polymer production process has byproducts such as proteins, fatty acids, and pigments but whatever remains unused returns to the process. Everything is biological and everything is cyclical, there is almost no waste. Moreover, these substances can also be used in the meat and animal milk industries and even for fertilizers. “In practice, almost all the biomass can be used, and nothing is thrown away”, says Goldman.

To the Sea

The use of marine resources has many advantages. The planet’s land resources are gradually dwindling, primarily because of food consumption for animals and humans, resulting in relatively small remains. Consequently, although land resources can be used as substitutes for plastic, these will run out in the not-too-distant future.

A further difficulty is that land resources are seasonal and relying on them also means relying on their transportation and harvesting periods. In contrast, the sea is an almost unutilized resource. The sea contains numerous kinds of seaweed, and seaweed exists everywhere so the solution offered by Biotic can be local and saves, among other things, the need for transportation, enabling additional local jobs.

Another advantage is that seaweed is an extremely renewable resource and its carbon absorption is far more effective than that of land plants. “So, if seaweed absorbs four times more carbon than a tree and grows in 2-6 weeks rather than 7 years, there are tremendous implications”, Goldman summarizes.

“Over time, we learned that working with seaweed and with other marine resources – what is known as hybrid culture – rejuvenates an ecological environment that is gradually becoming extinct. The seaweed cleans the oceans of harmful pollution.

“The idea is to be in an environment of seaweed growers – something that can be achieved both in seawater and freshwater reservoirs. However, natural seawater is a significant advantage that can produce the same polymer at a competitive enough price for the plastic industry”, Goldman explains. Today’s plastic industry is a byproduct of oil drilling and that’s why plastic is so cheap. If we don’t find a substitute that is equally cheap and efficient, the transition from harmful to biological plastic will simply not occur.

That is Biotic’s objective. “This is a very big challenge”, says Goldman who claims that Biotic is one of the few companies in the world to use fresh seaweed. Most countries hardly use seaweed for these purposes and the few that do, use dry seaweed. Most seaweed growers sell it for food and anything not suitable for food is disposed of, which is also a problem.

“We can also provide a solution for food growers and use the unutilized part of the product. This will enable to lower the price of seafood for humans by reducing the production costs of those farmers and also allow us to provide a solution for the world of plastic substitutes”.

Thinking About Both Consumers and Producers

Biotic entered the Innovation Authority’s “Seed Program”. That really helped us to attract investors faster. It was a very convenient, surprisingly short, and very efficient process for a company like ours”, Goldman says.

“We are currently at the scale-up stage. We built a small facility that has achieved proof of concept for increasing quantities. Until now, we have produced quantities that sufficed for various evaluation stages, most of which we performed while receiving feedback from producers and suppliers and that have passed several approval stages.

Biotic’s polymers recently underwent several seawater biodegradability tests by a licensed laboratory which showed that they break down totally within four weeks.

“We are increasing production so that the quantity will be enough for production of plastic sheets or bags. We are aiming to reach the start line with three kinds of polymer that will be suitable for bags, but also for agricultural items (such as irrigation pipes and plastic sheets), and for the auto industry. This is almost nonexistent at a biodegradability level that doesn’t require compost”.

Biotic’s vision is to provide a complete substitute for polluting plastic, while offering consumers a product that looks and feels the same. For producers too, the ambition is to enable them to work with the same machines, the same production lines and at the same cost – to allow for a complete transition.

“We are not there yet”, says Goldman, “but our solution is both scalable and sustainable. We aim to take an ecosystem that has fish, coral, seaweed, shrimps, shells etc., and to enhance it for human use while protecting the environment.

“At the end of the process, a situation will exist whereby we take something that absorbs carbon and convert it into a product that has a shelf life. So, we have gathered carbon from the sea, used seaweed, and also transformed it into a different product via a fermentation process. In my opinion, this is also a form of bio-convergence”.

Optimizing the Utilization of Bacteria for Water Purification

Urban wastewater treatment plants constitute the final hurdle in the transition of contaminants attributed to human activity (sanitation, industry, and agriculture) back to nature. Treating wastewater is one of mankind’s most significant challenges, with wastewater treatment plants consuming high quantities of energy, chemicals, and extensive areas for pooling, delivery, and operation by professional manpower.

Traditional wastewater treatment involves significant energy input for water transportation and circulation, as well as extensive infrastructure, resulting in substantial greenhouse gas emissions, thereby significantly contributing to green gas emissions and climate change.

This is where BioCastle enters the picture. The company develops more efficient solutions for treating these contaminants while altering the traditional method for treating wastewater to save both energy and infrastructure.

“Biological treatments for breaking down contaminants in industry have existed for years, and academic literature provides an extensive variety of bacteria and micro-organisms that know how to break down a large number of substances”, says Gabi Wolkinson, the company’s CEO. The technological gap exists in the difficulty to control the composition of the micro-organisms found in a wastewater treatment plant’s bioreactor which limits the treatment process. This is the reason that wastewater treatment methods are expensive, require professional personnel and result in complex and overly inefficient processes.

“To treat contaminated water via a biological digestion process today, the entire body of water is transported to a treatment media (a bioreactor), after which it is considered treated”, explains Dr. Ofir Menashe, an environmental microbiologist and BioCastle’s CTO.

Conveying the water is expensive: the water is heavy, and its delivery requires an intensive transportation and circulation infrastructure, pumps, and substantial energy. A patented technology called Small Bioreactor Platform (SBP) developed by Dr. Menashe changes the traditional method for treating water and sewage. “Instead of conveying the water, we only convey the contaminants within the water, thereby rendering part of the treatment infrastructure redundant”, he emphasizes.

“If there is a specific contaminant in the water (such as phenol), we need a special culture of bacteria to treat it because that contaminant is not naturally found in water reservoirs”, Dr. Menashe explains. “Because the body of water is constantly changing due to incoming and outgoing flows, we have no control over the location of the bacteria that changes with the flow and the culture is lost. Furthermore, when I put unprotected bacteria into an ecological system that has predators and prey, their concentration in the water will decrease over time and the effectiveness of the treatment will be impaired. In other words, bacteria cannot be simply assimilated into a large body of water – I need to protect my bacteria before it does its work”, Dr. Menashe explains.

The technology he has developed provides a solution for this problem via a membrane that creates a partition with holes that are small enough not to allow the bacteria to escape the capsule and to prevent predators from penetrating it, but big enough so that the contaminants in the water can go in and out. “I put the thousands of capsules, each of which is only 2.5 cm, in perforated cages in the water and affix them to the body of water”, he explains.

This method allows three means of control over the bacteria culture: control over the type of bacteria put into the water, over the quantity of biomass in the water at any given time, and over the location of the bacteria throughout the process. The control data facilitates a precise and controlled process. In other words, the SBP technology works with thousands of reactors simultaneously treating multiple contaminants, parallel to the operation of the wastewater treatment plant’s single bioreactor and increases treatment processes’ efficacy to create a cleaner effluent.

Industrial Wastewater: Reducing the Dependency on Nature

Technology enables industrial manufacturers less dependence on nature in the biological digestion of the factories’ waste. Instead of growing biomass without control over the composition of the bacteria populations, they can map and plan the types of bacteria populations according to the type of contaminant in the water. The clear advantages of this are a reduction in dependence on nature, treatment of contaminants for which the traditional biological method is less efficient, while saving in infrastructures.

“In effect, we have reduced the entire biological treatment of wastewater to a single tank”, Wolkinson says. This is nothing short of a revolution: the technology developed by the company makes the process of biological digestion of contaminants accessible to small and medium-sized industrialists via an autonomous process that relieves them of the need for professional personnel and also reduces costs.

A Fisherman Who Loves Fish

About four years ago, Gabi Wolkinson and Yossi De-Levy from Sea Dream Fisheries arrived at BioCastle, looking for a solution for inland hyper-intensive fish growing systems.
Today, growing large quantities of fish requires a controlled industrial system in a building, because this system is extremely sensitive, and any small change can affect the yield. Millions can be lost within minutes.

One of the most significant factors in fish is that fish breathe what they excrete. There are two toxic substances in urine and feces – ammonia and nitrite. The presence of these toxins in water creates the need for a giant biofilter with a huge quantity of biomass and water, just half of which is required to grow fish. This is unconceivably wasteful and constituted the technological gap the two set out to address at BioCastle.

“When checking the points of failure, we understood that only 3% of all bacteria in a biofilter know how to treat ammonia and nitrate. In other words, 97% of the bacteria consume oxygen and energy and excrete harmful substances into the water. We asked ourselves what would happen if we turn the 3% into 95%. If I had a 500 cubic meters biofilter, it would turn into 5 cubic meters and we could therefore save huge infrastructures that cost millions. At this stage, Sea Dream Fisheries ordered a pilot for proof of concept (POC).

“We decided to grow a sea fish –Sea bream – in the Jordan Valley where the temperature reaches 46 degrees in the summer and where there is no access to seawater. We built an air-conditioned container that contains the growing system, put it in a building, and began to grow young fish until they reached marketable size.

“During the test, we decided to forgo the tank that serves as a biofilter and put the capsules directly into the fish pools, among other things to test the infrastructure – and it worked. Costs declined, the system became more efficient, and the negligible passage of water created the possibility to build the fish growing systems at locations far from the sea. In other words, our system provides the small and medium-sized growers with access to the hyper-intensive fish growing system.

As strange as it sounds, the company is now attempting to establish a dedicated production unit for salmon that contains 5,000 baby fish in Mitzpe Ramon.

Unlike most startups in Israel, the company is located in the geographical periphery, at Park Edison (Jordan Valley). BioCastle produces and markets the products. “Our aim is to build an industry capable of marketing to the whole world,” the two summarize. “We are not focused on developing the ‘next generation’, but rather on the ability to provide benefit from what we already have in our hands.”

This blog is part of a series of articles in which experts from the Israel Innovation Authority explore of how Israeli leadership in bio-convergence is spearheading global development in the field. For more articles:

About the Author
Zachi Schnarch is the Deputy CEO and Head of the Technology Division of the Israel Innovation Authority, an independent public entity that operates for the benefit of the Israeli innovation ecosystem and Israeli economy as a whole.
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