OriginOil, an L.A. startup working on technology that can extract oil from algae, is looking to turn a profit.

The firm, founded by high-tech investor Riggs Eckelberry in 2007 and backed by several angels, has been in research and development mode since its inception.

Now the company said that it has built a commercially viable pilot manufacturing plant that can harvest about a quart of oil from about a gallon of algae extracted from 1,000 gallons of water. The company has developed a proprietary extraction process.

“Unveiling the pilot system is a historic milestone for us,” Eckelberry said.

Last year, the company announced it had successfully extracted oil from algae at the laboratory level through two methods: one that kills algae cells and has been used by competitors, and another innovative way that “milks” the oil from the algae without destroying the cells in the process.

Eckelberry said he’s already in talks with local wastewater treatment agencies that are interested in using OriginOil’s model to make oil from algae at their sites.

The biofuel produced by the OriginOil system can replace petroleum in various applications, including in diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, solvents and plastics. In addition, the byproduct of the process can be used for animal feed or creating natural gas.

Eckelberry said his investors aren’t obsessed with turning a profit just yet and they want the company to perfect its pilot system first. But, he added, that the company hopes to turn a profit in 2011 with some commercial sales.

“So many biofuel companies fizzle out soon so we don’t want that to happen,” he said. “The goal is have a tested, successful method of creating alternative fuel before marketing it.”

Shares of OriginOil closed at 33 cents Feb. 10 in over-the-counter trading. In the past 12 months, shares have hit a high of 48 cents and a low of 22 cents.

Up, Up and Away

Although Northrop Grumman Corp. announced last month it was moving its headquarters from Century City to Washington, D.C., it promised to keep thousands of employees at its local manufacturing facilities.

One of its largest departments, Redondo Beach-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, is busy as ever working on long-term projects.

Earlier this month, the company completed its testing of a tennis court-size sunshield it made for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be launched in 2014 and is expected to make discoveries about the origin of the universe.

“There are no text books or guidelines on how to design and build a deployable sunshield of this size,” said Keith Parrish, Webb telescope sunshield manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Nearly a decade ago, NASA and Northrop Grumman had to start from scratch and literally invent the techniques, materials and mechanisms needed to do the job.”

The Webb telescope’s sunshield is a five-layer structure, with each layer about as thick as a human hair. The sunshield will absorb and deflect solar light to keep the telescope operating at cryogenic temperatures so infrared sensors can see into the most distant galaxies.

Northrop’s Aerospace Systems generates about $10 billion in annual business and has nearly 24,000 employees, most located in Los Angeles County. The department also has entered final testing for a revolutionary weapon using lasers valued at $98 million that could be operated by the U.S. Navy to take out enemy boats.

Final Tanker Bids

In other Northrop Grumman news, the company’s years-long battle with rival Boeing Co. to win a $40 billion contract for aerial refueling tankers from the U.S. Air Force may be coming to head.

Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced plans to issue a final request for proposals on the contract for 179 new tankers sometime soon after Feb. 23.

Boeing was originally awarded the contract in 2003, but it was canceled three years later over bid-rigging. A revamped contract was awarded in February 2008 to Northrop, and its European partner, Airbus parent EADS, but government auditors ruled on appeal that the decision was unfair to Chicago-based Boeing. That contract was canceled.

Northrop has said it will not bid in the current competition unless the Air Force makes significant changes to a draft request for proposals released in September. Northrop contends the draft proposal is skewed to favor Boeing’s smaller tanker and its rival was allowed to see Northrop’s pricing data on its previous bid but not vice versa.

On Monday, the Air Force defended its forthcoming proposal.

“This acquisition will be a full and open, best value competition,” the Air Force said in a notice posted last week on the federal business opportunities Web site. “The Air Force anticipates a single award but reserves the right to award multiple contracts or not to award a contract at all.”

The final contract should be awarded by Sept. 30 at the end of the federal government’s fiscal year, the site stated.

Staff reporter Francisco Vara-Orta can be reached at fvara-orta@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 241.

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