San Diego’s Sapphire Energy says today it has harvested 81 tons of algal biomass from its farm in Columbus, N.M., less than two months after the first phase of its “green crude farm” became operational.
The venture-backed company, which financed the project with a combination of private and public funding, says the demonstration proves that Sapphire can harvest algae from commercial-scale ponds—totaling 100 acres so far—and produce ready-to-refine crude oil. The project features at least one 2.2-acre pond that is one-eighth of a mile long, and ranks as the largest algae pond ever built.
“There are a bunch of firsts,” Sapphire Energy spokesman Tim Zenk told me this morning by phone. “Nobody has ever used two-acre ponds before. We use a wet extraction process [to produce crude oil from algae], and the volume is significantly larger than anything else.”
Once harvested, the solution is about 1 percent algae and water. Most of the water is recycled, yielding an algae concentrate, or sludge. Since June, the plant has produced about 21 million gallons of algae by volume, equal to 81 tons by weight. The extraction process has produced “barrels” of green crude oil from the algae sludge so far, but Zenk added, “I don’t know how many.”
While Sapphire also refers to its green crude farm as “an integrated algal bio-refinery,” Zenk explained that the final product is a “green crude oil” that is equivalent to crude oil pumped out of the ground. Sapphire’s demonstration project does not include a conventional oil refinery that processes the crude into different types of fuel and other petroleum products.
In a statement this morning, Sapphire says construction began on June 1, 2011, and was completed earlier this year, “on time and on budget.” The company has made a point of meeting its deadlines, perhaps because Sapphire received its federal loan guarantee in the wake of the Solyndra failure.
Funding for the project includes $85 million in private investment from Sapphire, backed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee, and a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Sapphire has raised more than $300 million from venture investors, including Bill Gates’ Kirkland, WA-based Cascade Investment, Venrock, the Wellcome Trust, Arch Venture Partners, Arrowpoint Partners, Monsanto, and others.
The company began seeding the ponds with algae in March, marking the beginning of a series of shakedown tests. Sapphire says it harvested its first crop in June.
When completed, Sapphire says, “the facility will produce 1.5 million gallons per year of crude oil and consist of approximately 300 acres of algae cultivation ponds and processing facilities. By reaching this key milestone, Sapphire Energy is on target to make algae-based green crude a viable alternative fuel solution capable of significantly reducing the nation’s need for foreign crude oil.”
The next stage for Sapphire’s green crude farm calls for a transition to growing a winter variety of algae while continuing to harvest algae and extract oil. By the end of 2014, Sapphire estimates the facility will be producing 100 barrels of green crude per day.
The company says the plant also will serve as the blueprint for similar algae biofuel facilities around the world.
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