Sapphire Energy has built the world’s first large-scale farm to grow algae and produce crude oil. If all goes according to plan, commercial production of perhaps 10,000 barrels a day will begin in 2018.
Algae have major potential, even the U.S. military is looking into algae as fuel source. Algae grow fast, do not need food, and build up oil in their cells after being exposed to sunlight and CO2. Algae is grown is salty ponds, so algae farms can be built on land where not much else will grow – thus the land is readily available and inexpensive. Into each pond go genetically engineered single-celled algae that mature in five days. The mature algae is then taken from the pond and put through a thermo-chemical “wet extraction” process that separates the oil.
Sapphire Energy has spent $60 million on 70 algae ponds that are each the size of a football field and a refinery for oil separation. The site sits on 2,200 acres of land in Columbus New Mexico. Oil refining began in the summer of 2012 and the first barrels of oil have aired hit the market.
Sapphire Energy’s chief executive is Cynthia Warner. Ms. Warner’s previous job – head of global refining at oil giant BP. To date Sapphire Energy has raised about $300 million to fund their operation.
So what is the problem; why is algae oil not a mainstream product? Simply put, it is expensive to make. Reports say it costs around $5,000 to produce 1 ton of algae. If there is 30% oil embedded in that ton, then that converts into around $50 per gallon of oil. And that is before extraction and conversion. Additionally, the energy needed to produce the oil from the algae costs more than the algae would put out.
Yes production costs are a problem. However, that does not mean that there is not potential in this new form of green oil production. Sapphire Energy plans for commercial production of 10,000 barrels of oil from algae a day beginning in 2018.
Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. Being an Eagle Scout, Andrew has a passion for all things environmental. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMeggison