Two Things I Learned During My Tour of Sapphire Energy
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capture CO2 and pump the gas into algae ponds or bioreactors that have been established nearby. Zenk tells me that provisions of carbon-reduction legislation wending its way through Congress would enable certain factories and power plant operators to meet their carbon sequestration requirements by transferring their CO2 to algae fuel producers.
How this will work at the scale required is still unclear. Zenk says Sapphire’s plans to grow algae in the desert as economically as possible (“Think rice paddies,” says Stephen Mayfield, a Sapphire co-founder and scientific advisor) would require pumping CO2 into the desert. Just how this would work without carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere isn’t clear, but Sapphire officials say it is one of many issues the company must address as it develops its 100-acre pilot facility near Las Cruces, NM.
I learned another bit of intriguing information during the tour from Sapphire’s president, Cynthia “C.J.” Warner, when I asked how the startup was addressing concerns raised about genetically engineering algae to maximize their production of naturally occurring oils called lipids. While many crops grown in the United States are genetically modified, a few speakers at the Algae Biomass Summit warned that introducing algae-based biofuels technology could be a non-starter in Europe because of strident political and environmental opposition to the introduction of GMOs, genetically modified organisms.
Warner said that’s not an issue with Sapphire, because the company has not genetically engineered algae in its R&D efforts so far. Sapphire has instead been using a different tool of modern biotechnology—high throughput screening—to test thousands of different species of algae daily.
Mayfield, an algae scientist who is moving to the UC San Diego from The Scripps Research Institute, says such screening is needed to specifically identify different types of algae that grow well in different climates, different seasons, and in different water conditions. One of the often-touted benefits of algae is that it can grow in brackish water that would otherwise be unfit for human consumption. Still scientists are evaluating how different species of algae react to variations in salinity, pH, temperature, humidity, and other factors.
Mayfield says domesticated corn plants was optimized over time, using modern agricultural breeding and hybridization techniques to produce corn corps of full ears with plump corn kernels. High throughput screening merely accelerates that process by helping scientists identify the strains that are best-suited to produce lipids under any given condition. As Mayfield puts it, “Wild algae is just not a very good industrial crop.”