Algae: a carbon-neutral energy platform fueled by sunlight. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
In light of the skyrocketing cost of petroleum-based fuels, 100 years ago was now is an ideal time to look into the sorts of technologies which deserve more attention from you, me, the broader investment community, environmentalists, and our “government.” (That last one makes me want to both laugh and cry.)
One exciting new areas of research we should look into involves a technology called “renewable gasoline” and which is manufactured from algae — not corn. No food crops required. The folks leading in this technology are a San Diego-based company called Sapphire Energy, and their announcement of May 28, 2008 is noteworthy:
Pioneering effort alters ‘food vs. fuel’ debate, supports American energy independence with revolutionary platform that harnesses microorganisms, sunlight, CO2
Leading investors commit over $50 million to scale effort; production innovator Brian Goodall hired, team leader behind first biofuel 747 flight
Sonoma, California – May 28, 2008 – Sapphire Energy announced today they have produced renewable 91 octane gasoline that conforms to ASTM certification, made from a breakthrough process that produces crude oil directly from sunlight, CO2 and photosynthetic microorganisms, beginning with algae.
“Sapphire’s goal is to be the world’s leading producer of renewable petrochemical products,” said CEO and co-founder Jason Pyle, speaking from the influential Simmons Alternative Energy Conference. “Our goal is to produce a renewable fuel without the downsides of current biofuel approaches.
“Sapphire Energy was founded on the belief that the only way to cure our dependence on foreign oil and end our flirtation with ethanol and biodiesel is through radical new thinking and a commitment to new technologies.”
The end result — high-value hydrocarbons chemically identical to those in gasoline — will be entirely compatible with the current energy infrastructure from cars to refineries and pipelines.
Not biodiesel, not ethanol. And no crops or farm land required.
The Sapphire platform offers vast advantages – scientific, economic and social – over traditional biofuel approaches.
Company scientists have built a platform that uses sunlight, CO2, photosynthetic microorganisms and non-arable land to produce carbon-neutral alternatives to petrochemical-based processes and products. First up: renewable gasoline. Critically important, in light of recent studies that prove the inefficiencies and costs of crop-based biofuels, there is no ‘food vs. fuel’ tradeoff. The process is not dependent on food crops or valuable farmland, and is highly water efficient. “It’s hard not to get excited about algae’s potential,” said Paul Dickerson, chief operating officer of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy “Its basic requirements are few: CO2, sun, and water. Algae can flourish in non-arable land or in dirty water, and when it does flourish, its potential oil yield per acre is unmatched by any other terrestrial feedstock.”
Scalability key to success
Sapphire’s scalable production facilities can grow easily and economically because production is modular, transportable, and fueled by sunlight – not constrained by land, crops, or other natural resources.
“Any company or fuel that hopes to solve the biofuel conundrum must be economically scalable – and that requires conforming to the existing refining distribution and fleet infrastructure,” said Brian Goodall, Sapphire’s new vice president of downstream technology. Goodall led the team responsible for the highly visible, first-ever Virgin Atlantic “green” 747 flight earlier this year. In addition to a three-decade career in the petrochemical industry, he is a corporate inductee at the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In fact, Sapphire states that research is an introduction to an entirely new sub-category of fuel research that they refer to as Green Crude Production. See their take on
Even more encouraging is that this sort of research appears to be going in several directions at once. C|Net recently reported the following:
Sapphire said that it developed an algae process to avoid the controversy over using land for fuel crops instead of food crops.
But at this point, algae fuels are largely experimental and no company is making fuel on a commercial scale.
GreenFuel Technologies, which had to scale back a pilot site, said that it has landed a large European customer to make fuel from algae but has not shared any more information.
Sapphire is not the only company creating technology to make hydrocarbons from plants. Others include LS9, Amyris Biotechnologies, Codexis, and J. Craig Venter-founded Synthetic Genomics.
The advantage of this approach is that the fuels can be integrated into existing transmission infrastructure and can run in cars or planes without modification.
Let’s all keep our eyes on these companies and their technologies.