Two Things I Learned During My Tour of Sapphire Energy

Sapphire Energy has tried to maintain a relatively low profile since it established its headquarters in San Diego—especially since last fall when the media seized on reports that Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment had joined a $100 million secondary round of venture funding for the algae biofuels startup.

So when Sapphire opened its San Diego headquarters for a public tour during the Algae Biomass Summit that was held here earlier this month, I jumped at the opportunity. The venture-backed company maintains a 70,000-square-foot facility on La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Mesa, and now has about 120 employees. The company’s labs look like a lot of other biotech labs in San Diego, aside from all the gyrating machines with flasks full of gently swirling emerald-green fluid. But there were two particularly interesting factoids about Sapphire that I learned during the tour.

The first was ironic: Sapphire officials explained that algae consumes 13 to 14 kilograms of carbon dioxide to produce a gallon of green crude oil, which is roughly equivalent to conventional petroleum-based crude—and just as suitable for making gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. This is a good thing, as the fast-growing algae helps reduce atmospheric CO2.

So what’s ironic? Sapphire and other algae biofuel companies have to pump carbon dioxide into the algae they grow in their laboratories. Moreover, Sapphire spokesman Tim Zenk says one of the big problems that Sapphire is facing these days is getting enough CO2—at an affordable price—to support the company’s algae biofuels research and development efforts. The greenhouse gas is so crucial that Zenk says it limits the growth of algae if it’s in short supply.

Once algae-based crude is refined into a fuel like gasoline, though, it produces CO2 as a byproduct of combustion—just as any engine that burns gasoline, diesel, or aviation fuel produces greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, the argument is that algae biofuels are better for the environment because algae absorbs so much CO2 while it is growing, Sapphire officials estimate that algae-based fuels represent a 70 percent reduction in CO2 gases on a life-cycle basis compared to gasoline, diesel, or aviation fuel made from petroleum-based crude oil.

In the laboratory environment, however, CO2 gas is a valuable commodity. “You can buy carbon dioxide on the market,” Zenk says. “It’s heavily refined and used mostly by the food and beverage industry.” (The beverage industry uses dissolved CO2 to put the bubbly fizz into carbonated sodas.) But algae doesn’t need purified CO2. In fact, Zenk says the gas that goes up the smokestack at most utility power plants is 10 to 15 percent CO2—which is ideal for algal growth. As a result, some startups developing algae-based biofuels intend to … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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One response to “Two Things I Learned During My Tour of Sapphire Energy”

  1. Connie says:

    Why don’t they use covered vats with bubblers air comressors to raise the amount of C02 a given algal organmism with make contact with? There’s got to be a way to make a solar powered air compressor.