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It's been a long slog, but Sapphire Energy's algae-to-oil project is up and running and has completed its first successful harvest.
It's been a long slog, but Sapphire Energy's algae-to-oil project is beginning to take shape. The company announced this week the first phase of its so-called green crude farm -- a facility in Luna County, New Mexico that produces oil from algae -- is now operational and has successfully harvested at a large scale.
Sapphire Energy said the first crop was harvested in June without any difficulties, confirming the system at the farm works as designed.
A spokesman told me via email the farm will continue to scale up over time. The aerial photo on the right, which was taken earlier this month, shows 48 1.1-acre ponds and 20 2.2-acre ponds. Half of the 1.1-acre ponds and one of the 2.2-acre ponds are in active production. The spokesman explained that like any farming operation, some of the "fields," or ponds in this case, are empty at any given time, as the company rotates crops.
The first phase included the construction of 100 acres of algae pond cultivation systems as well as all the mechanical and processing equipment needed to harvest and extract algae and recycle water for the green crude farm.
The farm, once completed, will consist of 300 acres of algae cultivation ponds and processing facilities. By the end of 2014, the farm will be capable of producing about 1.5 million gallons of crude oil a year or about 100 barrels of oil per day, according to Sapphire Energy.
It's an important milestone for the San Diego-based startup, which has attracted investments from Bill Gates and Monsanto as well as an $85 million loan guarantee from the USDA and a $50 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department.
That being said, don't expect cheap algae fuel at your local gas station anytime soon. The company has and will continue to require vast pools of money to continue to scale its operations. Sapphire raised $144 million from investors in April to expand its green crude farm, an investment round that brought its total bounty to $300 million in private and public funds.
Sapphire has moved out of the lab and tested an algae fuel variety in two commercial flights and a cross-country road trip. It has yet to scale commercially. But according to the company's previously stated (and quite aggressive) goals, it plans to produce 100 million gallons a year by 2018.
How it works
Unlike other biofuel companies that make ethanol or biodiesel, Sapphire extracts oil from algae that can be refined into diesel, jet fuel and gasoline. The green crude is molecularly similar to the fuels that currently power our cars, planes and trucks, and as a result, is compatible with existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure.
Sapphire uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow algae in large open ponds on non-potable saltwater. The algae is separated from water, leaving behind a thick paste. The oil is then 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.
Photos: Sapphire Energy
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Aug 28, 2012
I'm participating in a debate, and i need to find out if this algae oil causes the same amount of pollution as normal oil or even more, can someone help?
One way besides improving farming methods will be to find out which are the better strains of algae taht can produce the most amount of lipids per cell and the fgrowth phase with which to harvest them in. Some might produce more lipid initially while others might produce the lipids when the algal cells are much older
In a pond setting, even with constant stirring sunlight is able to penetrate only a couple of inches deep. Valcent, now known as Alterrus had developed a vertical farming capability back in 2009 that they claimed would produce 100K gallons per acre per year by pumping the media through hanging plastic that exposed all the growth media to sunlight. That would cut the acerage required to produce the same volume of fuel by a factor of 20 over the projections for pond farming. They nearly went bust when the market tanked and they were overlooked as a target for investment by those directing the spending related to the economic stimulus. Since that time their focus has been in producing vegetable crops near or within metropolitan areas to reduce the shipping expense and cut the carbon footprint of growing and transporting crops.
Lets run some numbers: Sapphire's goal equals 5000 gallons per acre per year. Ignoring land for processing facilities and energy used up in processing, you could supply 10% of our current motor fuel needs on 3.36 million acres, an area of 5250 square miles or 4.3% of the land area of New Mexico. If we can double the fuel efficiency over 20 years or so and use 10% of New Mexico's area we'd end up with enough fuel to meet 46% of our needs. (These are just the numbers for highway traffic, ships and planes aren't included.) You might be able to run the entire mega-complex with the energy output from one of the new 3rd generation nuclear plants like GE's AP-1000. Sticker price $6-8 billion. Technically it looks feasible, the question would come down to cost and politics and the logistics of creating such a vast infrastructure. Of course we could just electrify highway transportation with battery powered vehicles fed from buried cables under the highways. This would need a whole fleet of AP 1000 units! Then we could use the algae fuel for shipping and aircraft, two areas it is impractical to electrify. And electric propulsion starts with a big efficiency advantage compared to liquid fuels since the best modern engines can only utilize about 30% of the energy content of their fuels compared to up to 60% efficiency for the best combined-cycle natural gas power plants. Allow 6-7% transmission losses and about 97% efficiency of electric motors in vehicles and it's still clearly a better use of resources. For now "all of the above" seems like the best strategy.
There's a biodiesel coop near me that sells their product for slightly more than the market rate of dino-diesel. http://www.biofuels.coop/the-price-of-fuel What does Sapphire sell for? I can't find that data. None of these investment reports matter much if normal people aren't able to choose the better option. Hopefully it won't be a solar panel boondoggle where the chinese eat our lunch because they have a slightly subpar product for drastically lower cost.