Wheat, rice, corn – those are the major food crops cultivated over millions of acres worldwide.  The products that are made from these range from simple staple food for people and animals to exotic pharmaceuticals and fuel products measured in billions of gallons.  Can algae compete?

Sapphire Green Crude Farm.

Sapphire Energy and its Green Crude Farm located near Columbus, New Mexico is a pretty good place to stage the first attempt to cultivate crude oil as an agricultural crop.

These are very smart people working the highest potential crop mankind has in its inventory.

BioFuelsDigest has prepared a medium length story complete with photos and a stage-by-stage explanation of what Sapphire has happening outside Columbus, New Mexico.  The article is very worthwhile.  For everyone including the algae aficionados the story is a treasure of simplified information and a complete overview.  Feel free to click over. If not, a brief summary follows.

Algae is such a hot prospect because of its productivity.  The mass usually doubles up every day.  As the BioFuels article points out, “In a 365-day growing season starting with two kilograms (a bit less than 5 pounds) of algae, you’d produce more biomass by the 4th of July than the entire mass of the known universe.”

Sapphire is growing crude oil as an agricultural crop. It’s never been done before.  The location is nearly ideal: lots of brackish water that won’t work for food crops, lots of sun and friendly temperatures.  And the land is already graded for saving input costs.

Sapphire seems to understand farming.  Success in farming is about removing costs.  Many will think it’s about yields, but reality is a cruel master: be profitable or go out of business.  So far the Green Energy Farm works on a 30-acre lot, but can Sapphire get to scale?  They can of the costs are under control.

BioFuelsDigest says, “The first thing you’ll see at Sapphire is an attempt to build the most passive system you can imagine. The bustle of activity is confined to the harvest and extraction areas. The Farm itself – well, if you see a moving part or anything man-made at all, there’s someone at Sapphire right now trying to figure out how to remove it.”

Sapphire is on a simplicity and cost cutting campaign beginning with the land itself.  It’s already graded to a 1% slope to get a gravity assist in flowing water downhill.  No paddle wheels here.  At the bottom of the farm, the water can be pumped back to the top with very energy-efficient pump technology.

Algae productivity isn’t the problem; it’s the competitors, pests, diseases and predators that drive up costs and take away yields.  Sapphire’s route is to push the four problem areas more than nature and develop the algae strains to cope.  Remember the algae productivity noted above?  If 99.99999999999% of the algae is overwhelmed by pests, predators, competitors or disease, you’d still produce more biomass than the known universe by September.

The cost wall for most algae efforts is in the separation from the water.  Algae may only be 1% of the flow, so how does one get all that water out of the way?

Sapphire’s answer in part is to flow tiny bubbles of air and skim the algae off followed by screw presses.  The next stage is the proprietary ginning.  BioFuelsDigest likens the ginning, logically, to the cotton gin – a method that combs the algae out of the water.

The last stage is fractioning out the bio crude oil from the rest of the biomatter.

Will it work? No doubt.  But at scale say at 5000 barrels of crude per day – worth some $3.5 million dollars a week?  Sapphire expects to complete and execute its scale up plan to 2018.

One thing is for absolute certain; Sapphire is learning agriculture on an industrial scale.  If they stay to plan, keep the innovation coming on costs the chances are they’ll be making very good money on industrial scale algae to crude oil production.


1 Comment so far

  1. Al Fin on October 3, 2012 8:59 AM

    It will probably take another 8 to 10 years to perfect the separation of oil from algae profitably, in high volumes.

    But if we take the algal biomass and turn it into fuels and high value chemicals, we can do that “now,” much more affordably, using catalytic pyrolysis and IH2.

    It is a completely different approach — growing algae for its prolific biomass, or growing algae for its prolific oil production.

    With biomass, you don’t have to maintain species purity or use expensive gene engineering or exorbitant sealed growth chambers. You go with the wild strain mix in open basins that grows the fastest.

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