rojects aimed at producing fuel from algae continue to advance around the globe with the help of private and government funding. If and when algae-based fuels become commercially viable on a large scale, New Mexico could be one of the major centers of production. Sapphire Energy has built a large research and development center in Las Cruces and plans to commission a 100-acre (41-hectare) algae field this spring near the southern New Mexico town of Columbus.
Sapphire was founded in 2007 in San Diego to develop renewable replacement fuels for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In 2008, Sapphire successfully produced 91-octane gasoline from algae that fully conforms to ASTM certification standards. In 2009, the company participated in a test flight using algae-based jet fuel in a Boeing 737-800 twin-engine aircraft.
A year later, Sapphire began construction for its Integrated Algal Bio-Refinery in southern New Mexico, a project that was awarded more than US$100 million in federal grant money from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act through the U.S. Department of Energy and a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bio-refinery Assistance Program. Sapphire has also received funding from Arch Venture Partners; The Wellcome Trust, the world's largest biomedical research charity; Cascade Investment, an investment holding company owned by Bill Gates; and Venrock, the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family.
Sapphire's proprietary technology produces "Green Crude" with a mix of sunlight, carbon dioxide and algae. It can be refined using the same processes as current crude oil. The company's first two target customers are the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Sapphire chose New Mexico for its operations after a thorough search of sites in Southwestern states.
"Columbus has an abundance of non-arable land which is not competing with agricultural or food products, an abundance of non-potable water and sunlight," says Tim Zenk, Sapphire's vice president of corporate affairs. "We were looking for desert conditions, and New Mexico has an abundance."
Zenk says Texas and Arizona also have similarly suitable conditions, but Sapphire picked New Mexico because of local and state support of its projects. About 75 people are currently working at the two New Mexico sites.
"It became apparent to us that this was the kind of community where we felt comfortable in establishing our first pioneer facility."
The Columbus project will be developed in three phases through the end of 2014. After that, the next step will be to build an even larger facility, a move that could come during the next two years. Zenk says the demonstration site in Columbus will be producing oil by late spring.
"As the demonstration proceeds, we will look into the future to determine where to go next," Zenk says. "The potential is enormous. Imagine the ability to grow a renewable source of crude oil and have it be owned by a U.S company. There has been no technology other than this to find a new source of crude oil to offset geopolitical issues," Zenk says. "The promise is big and the challenge is big as well. Essentially what happened 400 million years ago is there was a great algae bloom that created all the crude we use today. What we are doing through biotechnology is creating a renewable resource of crude oil. It has the ability to make states that have the resources places of energy production. It will take time and it's no small task. I don't want to trivialize it."
Sapphire has already conducted high-profile tests of its Green Crude. In addition to the Boeing project in 2009 Sapphire that same year provided the fuel for the world's first cross-country tour of a gasoline vehicle powered with a complete drop-in replacement fuel containing a mixture of hydrocarbons refined directly from algae-based Green Crude.
Zenk says Sapphire validated a theory that biotechnology could be used to give algae traits much like ag-bio companies do with corn. He says the technology is now at a point that Sapphire has the ability to produce 2,500 gallons per acre per year.
"Biology has improved because algae is not a terrestrial crop," Zenk says. "The only thing that algae does is multiply and divide. It's an efficient plant."