Sapphire Energy unveils world's first renewable gasoline

By Bryan Sims
Web exclusive posted June 4, 2008 at 4:25 p.m. CST

As ethanol and biodiesel help to allay some of the strain caused by increasing core commodity prices and imported oil nearing $140 a barrel, research conducted on biomass feedstocks such as algae continues to gain traction as a viable means for "closing the loop" on energy sustainability.

One company in particular is striving to meet this goal.

San Diego, Calif.-based Sapphire Energy was founded in 2006 on the basis of this principle philosophy when it debuted its "green crude", a gasoline equivalent refined from algae that comes in light and heavy fractions; the light being gasoline and a heavy being kero-disel (or jet aircraft fuel). Although it won't divulge its production process specifically, according to Sapphire Chief Executive Officer Jason Pyle, the company is producing 91 octane gasoline built on the platform that uses nothing more than sunlight, carbon dioxide and complex photosynthetic microorganisms.

Sapphire has raised $50 million in venture capital from ARCH Venture Partners, Venrock and the Wellcome Trust of the United Kingdom, which has committed to forward its corporate objectives in this regard. Sapphire's research partners include the U.S. DOE's Joint Genome Project, the University of California at San Diego, Scripps Research Institute and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. According to Pyle, ARCH Ventures and its investors were wary of the concept at first, but Sapphire has since diligently excelled its research scope on algae for the past two years. The work paid off.

"It's culminated into what we describe as this new category, which is ‘green crude'," he said. "We feel we are the first entry into the category of ‘green crude' and we invite other people to meet this standard."

The standard is something definitely worth being exuberant about. In making its green crude, Sapphire doesn't use food-based feedstocks, freshwater or agricultural land. As for its immediate plans, Pyle said the company is currently deploying a three-year pilot process with the goal of opening a 153 MMgy (10,000 barrel per day) production facility by 2011 at a site yet to be determined.

When the "green crude" is produced at commercial scale, there will be benefits. Sapphire's "green crude" product would be completely fungible within the current oil and gas infrastructure, an advantage that would leverage the company's product in a non-invasive manner in the existing oil pipeline, Pyle said.

"The standard we hold ourselves to is that the ‘green crude' has to be refined using an existing refining process," he said. "We want to be able to inject it into the crude pipelines and have it come out the other end and treat it like other crude products."

Sapphire's breakthrough could in fact influence others in the biomass industry to follow in step, which could bring much-needed diversity to the renewable fuels supply chain.

"We think that this is really kind of setting a new bar for the industry at large," Pyle said. "I don't believe that fuels are a winner-take-all proposition. We need many solutions. I believe that things like ‘green crude' or things which are green crude that are truly renewable has to be the direction of the industry."

To learn more about Sapphire Energy, visit http://www.sapphireenergy.com/.