No Time for Small Bets: The Decades-Long View of Sapphire Energy’s Jason Pyle

Since Sapphire Energy settled into its San Diego headquarters more than two years ago, local public appearances by CEO Jason Pyle have been about as rare as sightings of the endangered California clapper Rail. So I was eager to join the 250 or so people (and the only one with field glasses) who turned out last night for a panel discussion featuring both Pyle and Stephen Mayfield, a Sapphire co-founder, UC San Diego scientist, and director of SD-CAB, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

Pyle told me in late 2008 that he wanted to maintain a thoughtful and serious approach at Sapphire, even as the media was going ga-ga over the prospects for algae-based biofuels. Pyle also indicated that even-handed government policies (especially vis a vis fossil fuels) would be an important factor in the success of biofuels, and it’s apparent now that Pyle has spent a fair amount of time explaining his view of the emerging technology to officials in Washington D.C.

After winning a $50 million grant and a $54 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy at the end of 2009, Sapphire is now working on a 300-acre integrated algal biorefinery in Southern New Mexico. The Secretary of the Navy also has been supportive of the industry, setting a goal for the Navy to use biofuels and other alternative energy sources to provide half of the energy used by the Navy in 10 years.

Are such goals even feasible?

That was among the areas of discussion at last night’s event on the algae biofuels revolution, which as held at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and included Australian scientists Adelaide University’s David Lewis and Murdoch University’s Tim Morrison, and Michael Lakeman, a native New Zealander and regional director of Boeing’s biofuel strategy.

“I tend to think of success at Sapphire when we can produce 5 percent of the U.S. market, which is our goal,” Pyle says. He calculates that will require producing a million barrels a day of algal biofuels by the year 2025. Bear in mind, Pyle adds, that it required “$100 million and roughly 50,000 man-hours” for Sapphire to reach the demo stage. This was the announcement Sapphire made in May 2008 when the startup emerged from stealth mode to announce it had proven the feasibility of using algae to make “green crude,” which followed the first-ever Virgin Atlantic “green” 747 flight using algal biofuel.

Pyle says Sapphire’s next stage, which includes building … 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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