Calif. company says it has developed renewable gasoline

Photo courtesy of Sapphire Energy
Sapphire Energy claims that its "green crude" (shown here), derived from algae, sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, is chemically equivalent to the light, sweet crude oil that's distilled into gasoline and other fuels.

San Diego, Calif.-based Sapphire Energy claims to have found a method of turning algae into an oil that can be refined into gasoline and other fuels that are both renewable and carbon-neutral.

A press release from the company says that their "green crude," made from algae, nonpotable water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide, requires no food crops or farmland to produce. Sapphire says that they have successfully refined this crude into a substance that is chemically identical to high-octane gasoline. It is neither ethanol nor biodiesel.

Burning this gasoline will release the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as conventional gas, but because the carbon used to make Sapphire's gas is extracted from the air and not the ground, their gas, Sapphire says, is carbon-neutral.

Of course, it's only truly carbon-neutral if you ignore any carbon emitted by processing the algae and delivering the gasoline.

Sapphire says its algae gasoline is "completely compatible with the existing petroleum infrastructure, from refinement through distribution and the retail supply chain." The only difference is that you're not pumping the stuff out of the ground, but growing it via photosynthesis.

The company has secured $50 million in funding from a number of respected investors, including ARCH Venture Partners and the Wellcome Trust, Britain's largest charity. Sapphire has also received funding from Venrock, the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family.

Algae-based biofuels are not new. As this 2007 Popular Mechanics story points out, there are a number of companies out there who have successfully developed biodiesel and ethanol from the photosynthetic organisms, which yield high amounts of oil and can grow quickly under the right conditions. But nobody has yet produced an algae biofuel that is cheaper to produce than conventional gasoline.

Sapphire says its "green crude," by contrast, can be distilled not just into gasoline, but also into diesel and jet fuel in a way that is economically scalable.

Forbes reports that Sapphire plans to have its first facility operational in three years, probably somewhere on desert lands in the Southwest. The company's goal, Sapphire CEO Jason Pyle told Forbes, is to produce 10,000 barrels a day. Currently, Americans consume 20 million barrels of petroleum a day.

Mr. Pyle told the LA Times that the price of his company's green crude is "competitive with extracting oil from deep-water deposits and oil sands" – both of them notoriously costly ways to get oil.

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