Chilean firm endeavors to break through barriers with its microbubble technology
A Chilean engineering firm is hoping to break through market barriers using a barrier of its own – specifically, a microbubble barrier solution for marine environments, including for salmon farms.
The firm, Low O2, offers diagnostic services and tailored solutions employing microbubble barriers, upwelling technologies, and other aeration systems which help to protect marine environments. Low O2 CEO Luis Sepulveda told SeafoodSource the company looking to grow sales 50 percent this year, but its growth plan, mainly focused outside Chile, comes with a significant challenge.
The company is the sister firm of PSP Soluciones, which was initiated shortly following a sizeable algae bloom in 2016 that wiped out more than 20 percent of Chile’s national production of salmon. PSP asserts that the microbubble barriers it offers, tested by Chile’s Universidad Austral and Plancton Andino laboratory, are 91 percent effective in limiting the spread of algae blooms and 87 percent effective at blocking jellyfish. PSP now services the majority of Chile’s salmon-farming firms, including Camanchaca, Mowi, Cermaq, AquaChile, Marine Farm, and Australis.
“We’re not the only ones doing this. The concept of bubble barriers exists since the 1950s. But after the bloom in 2016, my partner traveled to many countries where there was literature regarding these barriers, and he saw that most of these solutions were done in a very artisanal way and practically in same way as it was done in the 1950s – you drill holes into a tube, put it under water and introduce air, where bubbles are formed,” Sepulveda said.
However, Sepulveda said the effectiveness of that antiquated solution is low and PSP saw an opportunity to innovate and apply engineering to come up with a unique product. The result, after years of development, was the company's invention of an underwater wall of microbubbles, created by pipes injecting oxygen-enriched air to form a barrier.
“Everything is calculated, from the distance between each bubble, to the speed with which the bubble surfaces, to the size of the bubble, the depths, the air flow, the materials, the type of the diffuser, the positioning of the holes, what type of microbubbles they will be – several things designed to achieve a highly effective product,” Sepulveda said.
With the prototype in hand, Low O2 was founded in 2020. Sepulveda said now that the company is established, it has three objectives: to diversify in other industries outside of aquaculture, to take its operations international, and to expand into new business areas, such as portable oxygenation modules for ocean-based fish farms. Sepulveda said Low O2's microbubble wall-creator can also be used to block trash and even oil spills from spreading, which could also make it useful for sectors such as mining, desalination, and water utilities. Its bubble barriers can even be effective in significantly lowering noise transmission in marine environments, where construction of ports or bridges can have a high impact on marine fauna, damaging their eardrums, which can then cause stranding or death.
“Two years ago, aquiculture represented 100 percent of our sales. Today that’s at about 85 percent, with the remaining 15 percent going to other industries. The goal is to have a balance between the industries, but all the time growing, without sacrificing volume. That helps to distribute the risk, as we know aquaculture in Chile is a high-risk activity,” he said. “For 2022, we expect to grow about 50 percent above sales from last year, reaching a total of about CLP 4 billion [USD 4.2 million, EUR 4.3 million]. Growth predictions beyond that are difficult as the aquiculture market here in Chile is fairly consolidated. But [most of] the expansion will be in other countries and in other industries.”
However, Low O2 has hit a barrier entering markets outside Chile, according to Sepulveda.
“Expanding abroad is not easy because you have to break a lot of paradigms. In developed countries, Chile is still seen as an underdeveloped country, so we have to fight against that perception,” Sepulveda said. “Today, there are three companies in the world that do what we do, but nobody has the quantity of projects or the linear kilometers that we’ve installed – we’re number one, having implemented more than 200 projects so far, which involve 400 linear kilometers of installed systems. These are large extensions of barriers and oxygenation systems. We’ve focused on and specialized in marine environments [and operating] in adverse conditions and we’re able to demonstrate that we have a unique, differentiated product. When we participate in RFPs, [and when it comes time to presenting the economic offers and prospective customers see the portfolio of projects that we have, it has played in our favor.”
A landmark moment came for the company in 2021, when Low O2 won a contract with Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), a state agency for the development of the fisheries and aquaculture industry in Ireland. The award of the contract came after a year and a half of campaigning and participating in the country’s sector meetings and webinars.
The project got off to a somewhat rocky start. It was delayed by about six months due to restrictions resulting from a nationwide COVID outbreak, coupled with difficulties Low O2 faced in hiring local services during the pandemic. Sepulveda said many workers they needed, such as scuba divers to perform the underwater installations, opted to accept government economic aid and remain in their homes. However, the project was finally completed in April 2022 and Sepulveda said he hopes it will open doors for similar projects across Europe and elsewhere.
“Scotland is right next to Ireland, which is also an aquaculture-producing country, and we hope that a project will come from there in the short term,” Sepulveda said.
Despite a desire to enter the Norwegian market, Low O2 currently has no inroad into the world's largest salmon-farming nation as of yet.
“We had initial conversations there when we first began with Low O2, but they didn’t believe much in our technology and we didn’t insist, deciding to focus instead on other countries. That [also] happened to an extent in Scotland, until we deployed the project in Ireland. Even a few years ago in our home country here in Chile, there were doubters," Sepulveda said. "Today, nearly all farming centers in Chile have our systems deployed and are highly satisfied. You have to break down the myths.”
In the meantime, the company will continue to search for international opportunities. It recently won a contract in the Middle East to use themicrobubble barrier to protect a water utility’s desalination plant, which draws from the ocean to produce potable water. That project is slated to enter operations in another four to five months.
Photo courtesy of Low O2