From more efficient wastewater treatment to higher yields in greenhouses and fish farming, nanobubbles are gaining traction in food and farming operations, claims California-based startup Moleaer.
AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with CEO Nick Dyner (ND) for a quick primer on nanobubbles, which at 2,500 times smaller than a grain of salt, exhibit different properties to bubbles perceptible to the human eye, from neutral buoyancy (they neither fizz up nor sink) to high oxygen transfer efficiency, a strong negative surface charge, and a high surface area to volume ratio.
AFN: What are nanobubbles?
ND: Nanobubbles are 70-120 nanometers in size that can be formed using almost any gas and injected into any liquid. Due to their size, they have all kinds of unique properties, but one key benefit is that we can dissolve gas incredibly efficiently, 30 times more efficiently than traditional aeration systems or gas to liquid transfer systems.
This allows industries to use industrial gases more cost effectively or in some cases for the first time. That’s why irrigation is our biggest market because we enable farmers to use oxygen cost effectively for the first time or we can lower their energy consumption needed to power compressors.
AFN: How do you generate nanobubbles?
ND: We typically package our nanobubble generators into systems where we include a pump and some sort of gas source. We have proprietary material inside a tube that is diffusing gas in a certain way that is critical to the formation of tiny bubbles.
We have certain geometry in that pipe that affects the way the liquid flows through it. At the gas liquid interface, we are shearing bubbles that are about 100 nanometers in size, about the size of the virus, and we shear those bubbles off the surface to be able to create various concentrations depending on the application, of roughly 100 nanometer sized bubbles with various charges.
Our tech is a combination of specialty materials combined with geometry that influences the rate at which we inject the gas and the rate at which we flow the water to create two distinct benefits of dissolving gas very efficiently and forming tiny bubbles.
AFN: Who invented the tech?
ND: We didn’t invent nanobubbles. What Moleaer was develop a way to make nanobubbles that could be commercialized at an industrial scale.
To get into a commercial application, you need a system or device that can scale with the process and the flow rates companies are working with. That was the elegance of Moleaer’s technology and what has enabled us to grow very quickly.
AFN: What IP do you have?
ND: Moleaer has 14 patent and patent applications. Nine are focused on ways to dissolve gases and make nanobubbles in liquids. The first two, which are granted, protect 90% of the products we sell. The other five are around the uses of nanobubbles, things like putting nanobubbles in an anaerobic treatment process like we did at [Wisconsin-based dairy co] Meister.
We have not come across another company that can scale their nanobubble generating technology at a cost point that we can, to get to 8,000 gallons a minute. That we have oil and gas and wastewater customers who use products at that scale, at the price point that we offer, is truly the advantage that Moleaer has.
But what matters most is our ability to apply the technology to create value for customers. Just because you make a lot of nanobubbles actually doesn’t mean you’re going to get the outcome you want. You need to know the size, charge and concentration to get that outcome.
AFN: How can nanobubbles benefit growers using irrigation systems?
ND: We have about 1,000 systems installed in various different types of irrigation systems and growing facilities. We started with small hydroponic facilities and then scaled to traditional high-tech Dutch greenhouses and then expanded into more basic greenhouses with irrigation lines into soil in southern Spain.
And finally we’re also doing outdoor precision irrigation, where our system goes on the discharge of a pump and then it goes into 1,000 hectares of drip irrigation lines.
The reason it’s grown so quickly is that we’ve enabled growers to put pure oxygen into irrigation water to elevate oxygen levels to improve root development, which translates to higher yields.
Another benefit is that when you put nanobubbles into the irrigation water, you also reduce the presence of biofilm on the irrigation lines, so you’re reducing the growth of waterborne pathogens.
By reducing the surface tension of water, water also flows more easily into the root zone of the plant and into the soil. Finally, the bubbles and the nutrients are coming together and enabling better nutrient absorption, which translates to higher yields.
AFN: How can nanobubbles benefit wastewater treatment?
ND: You can use nanobubbles inside anaerobic digesters [used by food processors to convert waste into energy] to break down antimicrobial surfactants from cleaning chemicals that can upset the process and limit the amount of waste water you can handle.
The nanobubbles bond with the surfactants and start to remove them from the waste stream. This allows the traditional aeration system, which is putting air into wastewater, to dissolve oxygen more efficiently, because the bubbles are not coated by surfactants, which means you need less energy to power your aeration system.
So you need less energy to get a higher oxygen level in the wastewater. And once you start to do that, you also start to improve the biomass, or the good bugs that you’re adding to break down the contaminants in the wastewater. And that ultimately leads to better discharge water quality.
Altogether this allows dairy companies such as [recent customer] Meister to increase cheese production without using capex to expand their wastewater treatment facilities, or it allows companies to maintain production and lower energy consumption and chemical usage in their wastewater treatment. You also generate more biogas if your system is working optimally.
In other scenarios, where meat and poultry processing facilities have big lagoons full of wastewater, we deliver very large scale systems where we’re helping them break down contaminants more efficiently, eliminate odors, and reduce the sludge that builds up at the bottom of the lagoon, which can ultimately lead to a very expensive dredging project every now and then.
AFN: How does your business model work?
ND: In irrigation, which is our biggest market, most of our customers buy a system from us based on a certain size to treat a certain volume of water, and then we help them on the installation and ongoing support that extends for years.
In wastewater, we typically offer it as a rental, where they install our nanobubble generators and pay us a monthly service fee.
And then for some of our other markets, it’s a one off paid-for job, so maybe you have a spill in a river or you have a reservoir or body of water that’s gone bad, so we offer nanobubbles as a service.
AFN: Is this an easy sell, or do potential customers see barriers?
ND: The important thing to remember when you’re looking at payback is that it all depends on the value of the crops you produce and how much you produce. We’ll see up to 30% yield improvements in some more traditional greenhouses and single-digit improvements in more high-tech ones, but in the latter cases, they’re producing so much product, even a single digit increase in yield will usually enable you to get pay back [from installing Moleaer’s tech] in a harvest.
The real challenge is that we’re working in very large commodity industries that tend to move slowly, and we’re having to educate customers about something that many of them have still never heard of.
It’s not about payback. We have a lot of case studies now showing a clear return on investment. It’s more that they’re thinking, What else do I have to do with my money? They have to think about capital projects that are 100% required to keep things going… ‘I have a leak, I’ve got to fix the piping. Or I’ve got a wastewater treatment plant, I’ve got to fix the HVAC system. I’ve got to upgrade the power. I have no choice but to do that.’
So then the real question is, after they’ve already decided what they have to do, how do they think about tech adoption and are they prepared to spend that money right now? And obviously in the higher interest rate environment, sales cycles take longer.
AFN: Where are the biggest growth opportunities for nanobubbles?
ND: We focus on food, energy, and water, so anything that is grown, whether it’s fish, or animals or crops, and anything that is mined, needs water, so those are all enormous market opportunities for us. We also treat harmful algal blooms, so when there is a large body of water that is requiring some sort of treatment and they don’t want to use enormous loads of chemicals, we’ll get called in to take a look.
AFN: How is Moleaer performing?
ND: We’re at 87 employees now and we have about 2,500 systems deployed in 55 countries. We’re not profitable but that’s by choice as we’re very focused on growth. But the company doesn’t require a lot of capital investment to grow. We’re very efficient in how we design and assemble our products and deliver them to the field.
I don’t know if it’s going to be five years, 10 years or 20 years from now, but in future I predict that very large commodity industries will all be very familiar with the utilization of dissolved gases and bubbles in ways they never imagined to enable improvements in productivity.
AFN: How have you funded the company?
ND: We’ve raised about $61 million since 2017 and we have great institutional partners that have strong understanding of food and energy. But what we’re really interested in now is being able to grow through partnerships.