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What's With This Green Machine - III

This is the 3rd of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence. You can find parts I and II here.

Developing a carbon neutral, renewable energy source that would allow us to decrease our production of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, and break our addiction to the import of $400B/year of oil, is the holy grail for what we call the “Green Machine”. The non-oil energy resources list consists primarily of wind, solar, hydro/marine, geothermal, and biofuels. Two candidates that have good potential for scale-up to really significant levels are solar and biofuels.

Biofuels are seen as having three increasingly green benefit levels. First-level fuels come from current animal food crops like corn. These have been shown to take almost as much energy to produce as they provide, and may have helped raise food prices to alarming levels. Second-level fuels are non-food plants and plant by-products such as wood chips that, with the help of algae, can produce ethanol from cellulose. Potential downsides of that process include the extensive arable land-use and water required, and the difficulty algal systems have converting cellulose to fuel efficiently. Third-level fuels, considered by some to be almost visionary, would be the direct creation of a biofuel from photosynthetic algal systems that use salt water, CO2, and the sun’s energy to produce a substitute for oil.

It’s a little hard to believe, but a San Diego start-up called Sapphire Energy claims to have developed a third-level biofuel process that they say produces “Green Crude”. A May 29th Forbes article based on a press release suggests (in Forbe’s words) that it’s a “water-to-wine transformation” story. The company’s description says their “production process relies on photosynthetic microorganisms such as algae, sunlight, CO2, water and non-arable land. The end product is, in fact, gasoline,” and 91 octane at that.

But how can you get gasoline from algae? The current view is that the fossil-fuels we already use come largely from ancient seas of algae. Some algae contain about 50% plant oil that can be chemically converted, but the challenge is growing the right strains of algae and extracting the oil very efficiently and on a massive scale to keep costs down. An algae expert, Dr. Roger Ruan from the University of Minnesota projects that, “an acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year compared to a possible 15,000 gallons of oil per acre of algae”. There is not yet good agreement about the ultimate feasibility of doing this, but experts from DARPA, DOE, Chevron, and many industries worldwide are involved in the intensive ongoing research to solve this challenge.

In Sapphire Energy’s words,

“perhaps most importantly,…[our] fuel products are chemically identical to molecules in crude oil, making…[them] entirely compatible with the current energy infrastructure – cars, refineries, and pipelines. Sapphire’s scalable production facilities can grow easily and economically because production is modular, transportable, and fueled by sunlight – and not constrained by land, crops, or other natural resources.”

Their staff represents all the science, technology, operations, and business capabilities required for such a grand venture.

Needless to say, investors—including several key players—have gleefully dumped about $50M on them. Sapphire is also collaborating on technology issues with staff from the Dept. of Energy’s Joint Genome Project, the University of California, San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute, and the University of Tulsa. As the managing director at the investor ARCH Venture Partners indicates, “we are producing something” with the aim of replacing significantly more than 1% of our current fossil-fuel supply.

This “Green Crude” story bears watching closely due to its extraordinary potential and to the inevitable challenges associated with trying to cost-effectively mass-produce, on a very large scale, a true oil substitute. While the production process consumes CO2, the use of the biofuel produces CO2 (similar to gasoline), so the claim that it is carbon neutral will need verification in the real world. The many other enterprises working in the biofuel arena will no doubt be watching closely for the weak link in this story so, stay tuned.


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