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Sapphire Energy raises $144M for green crude farm

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How do you grow algae in the desert Southwest? Startup Sapphire Energy is already doing it and has just raised $144 million to expand a demonstration plant that produces crude oil from algae.

Sapphire Energy has raised $144 million from investors to expand its green crude farm, a commercial demonstration facility in New Mexico that produces oil from algae.

The San Diego-based startup is unlike other biofuel companies out there. It's not making ethanol or biodiesel. Instead, it's extracting oil from algae that can be refined into diesel, jet fuel and gasoline and is compatible with existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure. In other words, the green crude is molecularly similiar to the light, sweet crude oil that we use today to fuel our cars, planes and trucks.

Sapphire uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow algae in large open ponds of non-potable saltwater. The algae is separated from water, leaving behind a thick paste-like material. From there, the oil is extracted from the algae biomass. Once the oil has been concentrated, it's prepared for processing and refining, where it can be turned into gas, diesel and jet fuel.

Sapphire has successfully moved out of the lab and tested its fuel in two commercial flights and a cross-country road trip. But it has yet to scale commercially. The company has laid out a pretty aggressive timeline. In the past, Sapphire has said it plans to produce 100 millon gallons per year by 2018.

That's where the Luna County green crude farm comes in.  The photo above is an aerial shot of the green crude farm located in Luna County, New Mexico. The neat little rows you see are open ponds used to grow algae. Sapphire wants to expand production at the 300-acre site.

So far, the company has managed to attract investors and snag some government funds. Counting this latest round, Sapphire Energy has raised more than $300 million in private and public funds. That includes a grant award of $50 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $54.4 million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture.

On a side note: Monsanto was among the group of investors. Last year, Sapphire and Monsanto entered into a multi-year collaboration on algae-based research projects. Why would the world's biggest seedmaker bother with an algae-to-energy startup? Sapphire's genetic research tech, which could help Monsanto boost crop yields.

Finally, some readers might wonder, why has Sapphire located its demonstration plant (and a separate R&D facility) in New Mexico? The area has two critical ingredients: A huge underground reservoir of salt water  and abundant sunlight that's used to grow algae.

Photo: Sapphire Energy

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure