The pioneer: Ross Youngs, founder and CEO Algaeventures Inc.

The concept: An affordable method for mass-producing algae to make alternative fuels, animal feeds, fertilizers, plastics, chemicals, and oils. The trick is the mass production part, because while it’s easy to grow algae, it’s hard to separate these tiny aquatic plants from their watery environment. Algaeventures’ new method uses an absorbent plastic membrane to rapidly “sop up” the water around the algae, making it possible to harvest, de-water, and dry algae on a massive scale using relatively little energy. Youngs’ process could make algae-based biofuel cost-competitive with gasoline.

The payout:  $5,992,697.00

The goal: Youngs is currently harvesting algae from water at a rate of 500 liters per hour. His goal is to reach 15,000 liters per hour — for proof of concept — by next year, and 50,000 liters per hour — for commercial applications — by 2012.

The hurdles: Scaling up the volume and bringing down the cost. Youngs is fine-tuning the chemistry of his machine’s permeable membrane, experimenting with new, more absorbent and durable materials and perfecting the weave of the membrane’s tiny plastic threads. He’s also tinkering with ways to move the algae-laden water through the machine in ever-greater volumes.

The promise: “All terrestrial plants evolved from algae. It has been around for billions of years. As a resource it’s incredibly versatile — in theory, it could be used in virtually every application fossil fuels are used for, but without the negative environmental effects. To me, it’s a panacea. It could be as critical to the future of civilization as it was to its formation.”