Sapphire Energy, Backed by Bill Gates, Tries to Tone Down the Hype as it Makes Gasoline From Algae

Sapphire Energy has not provided many details about its technology since CEO Jason Pyle stepped into the limelight six months ago to announce the San Diego startup has developed a revolutionary process for turning pond scum into high-octane gasoline.

“I have no intention of being secretive,” Pyle told me at the inaugural networking meeting of the newly formed San Diego Biotechnology Network, or SDBN. But after seeing the effects of the boom-and-bust cycle in two recent tech bubbles, Pyle says, “My goal is to maintain a serious and thoughtful approach in a frothy market. I don’t want Sapphire to get caught up in that hype.”

Keeping the media from hyperventilating, however, could be a tall order for a company developing technology with the potential to help the United States break its dependence on imported crude oil. And who can blame us?

At a time when U.S. gasoline prices were arcing beyond $4 a gallon nationwide, Sapphire said it had proven the feasibility of using algae to make “green crude” that can serve as an identical substitute for crude oil. Sapphire said its product, unlike other biofuels, could enter the pipeline at any petroleum refinery for processing into gasoline and other fuels.

The company calls it “the world’s first renewable gasoline.”

Sapphire’s process has been used successfully to make the three most important fuels, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, Pyle says, and all three products have been independently certified to meet fuel standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials.

The prospects are electrifying, and interest in Sapphire has been extraordinarily high. Sapphire only added fuel to the fire, so to speak, when the company said in September it had raised $100 million in a second venture round from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners and others.

Aside from Sapphire’s corporate pedigree and the revolutionary potential of its technology, the company says its green crude is environmentally appealing because it will have no effect on global climate change. Sapphire says it’s technology is “carbon neutral” because its algae absorbs as much carbon dioxide as a car releases when its fueled by renewable gasoline.

In San Diego, Sapphire has been recruiting heavily for chemical engineers, lipids chemists, senior algal production scientists and other skilled workers at its headquarters on Torrey Pines Mesa. The startup currently has about 80 employees, Pyle said.

Sapphire’s CEO remained vague, though, about details of the company’s technology.

“We use genetic engineering, directed evolution, synthetic biology and (agricultural) breeding,” Pyle told me. But Sapphire’s approach specifically does not include fermentation, a technique adopted by some biofuels startups.

“All of our systems are photosynthetic,” Pyle says about a process in which algae “directly converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon products.”

Sapphire already has demonstrated that its technology is feasible, and is now working to show it also can work on an industrial scale, Pyle says.

“We’ve proven this from sunlight-to-gasoline, from soup-to-nuts, so we don’t have any questions about whether the technology works. The only question is about the cost of production.”

He adds that Sapphire’s near-term goals “are to test our existing organisms and to grow those organisms in pilot plants into green crude on a scale larger than we have here in San Diego.”

The company has established a test facility in Las Cruces, N.M., and has been drawing on the scientific resources of New Mexico State University to help develop its fuels.

In an interesting twist, Pyle says the origins of Sapphire began two years ago as … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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