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Sapphire's algae-to-oil farm begins to take shape

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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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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