Sapphire Boosts Yields from Blue-Green Algae, Signs Earthrise Deal

2/29/12Follow @bvbigelow

In a move that extends the scope of its algal biofuel production, San Diego’s Sapphire Energy says it has modified certain cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, to produce significantly higher yields of “green” crude oil.

In a statement released today, Sapphire says it also has signed a licensing agreement with Earthrise Nutritionals, an Irvine, CA-based producer of blue-green algae that is owned by Japan’s Dainippon Ink & Chemicals (also known as the DIC Group). In 1981, Earthrise established the first commercial blue-green algae farm in the United States. Since then, the Earthrise farm in the Imperial County desert east of San Diego has expanded to 108 acres and now ranks as the world’s single largest producer of Spirulina, a cyanobacteria popular around the world as a dietary supplement. Earthrise also makes blue-green dye used in food-coloring products.

Until now, Spirulina has been grown primarily as a nutritional supplement, according to Tim Zenk, a Sapphire spokesman. But, Zenk says, “We’re invented some technology over the past year or two that has totally changed that.”

Sapphire also sought to partner with Earthrise because it has extensive experience growing cyanobacteria in outdoor ponds on an agricultural scale, Zenk says.

Sapphire showed several years ago that it was feasible to modify micro algae to make “green crude” that could be substituted for petroleum-based crude oil in the refining process. Zenk declined to specify the strain of cyanobacteria that Sapphire has been cultivating. He says the company is describing it only generally as “Spirulina,” an ambiguous term that could be construed to different kinds of cyanobacteria, including some Arthrospira species.

“Adding Earthrise’s prokaryotic  strain (cyanobacteria) to Sapphire’s inventory of prokaryotic and eukaryotic (green algae) strains will enable Sapphire to produce fuel more efficiently at its Integrated Algal Biorefinery now under construction in New Mexico,” the company says in its statement today.

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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