Sapphire Energy further develops 組reen crude'

By Bryan Sims
As conventional renewable fuels help to allay some of the strain caused by soaring oil prices, research conducted on algae as a biomass feedstock continues to gain traction. San Diego-based Sapphire Energy is one of several companies conducting this research, but with a slightly different angle.

The company was founded in 2006 when it first began developing "green crude," a gasoline equivalent derived from algae that comes in light and heavy fractions (the light being gasoline and the heavy being biokerosene or biobased jet fuel). Although Sapphire Energy won't divulge details of its production process, it did announce in May that it's producing 91-octane gasoline using nothing more than sunlight, carbon dioxide and complex photosynthetic microorganisms, according to Chief Executive Officer Jason Pyle. "It's culminated into what we describe as this new category, which is 組reen crude,'" he said. According to Sapphire, green crude is a completely new source of petroleum that is domestically produced, carbon-neutral and identical in composition to fossil fuels. "We feel we are the first entry into the category of 組reen crude,' and we invite other people to meet this standard," Pyle said.

Sapphire has raised $50 million in venture capital from Arch Venture Partners, Venrock and the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust. Sapphire's research partners include the U.S. DOE's Joint Genome Project; the University of California, San Diego; The Scripps Research Institute; and the University of Tulsa (Okla.).

Sapphire's renewable gasoline refined from green biocrude uses a nonfood feedstock, and doesn't require the use of agricultural land or water, yet it delivers 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than biofuels originating from croplands, according to Pyle. He 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.

In addition, Pyle said 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 noninvasive manner. "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, have it come out the other end and treat it like other crude products."