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Sapphire Energy’s Integrated Algal Biorefinery Project

Integrated algal biorefinery
Overview of the Sapphire Integrated Algal Biorefinery project. Click to enlarge.

Sapphire Energy, which intends to be the leading producer of renewable petrochemical products derived from algae, is building, with the cooperation of a number of partners, a 300-acre demonstration Integrated Algal Biorefinery designed to produce renewable gasoline, diesel and jet economically from an algal feedstock.

The purpose of the demonstration project is to (1) evaluate the technical feasibility of the project and its various components and (2) evaluate the economic performance of those components, said Dr. Jason Pyle, Sapphire’s CEO, during a presentation at the 3rd Algae Biomass Summit in San Diego. The project also highlights the importance of collaboration, Pyle said.

The project integrates processes that are capable of scaling up to commercial scale. Inputs include approximately 35,000 MT/year of CO2, approximately 2,100 acre-ft/hear of brackish water; 300 acres of non-arable land; and 210 tonnes/year of hydrogen. Outputs are 100 bpd of green crude, a minimum of 60 bpd of renewable hydrocarbon fuel, and solids.

The project takes the algae grown and produces algal oil and oil solids. The oil (“green crude”) is refined into drop-in hydrocarbon fuels; the solids go into an anaerobic digester to produce methane, with product CO2 and nutrients flowing back into algae cultivation.

The project has already consumed some 90,000 person hours and $52 million, Pyle said.

Economic performance is something that we are all sitting here scratching our heads about when it comes to the production of algal green crude, so it is these kinds of activities that will answer the essential questions that we need as in industry to know in order to move this business forward. The real goal of a demonstration project like this is to generate a complete technical and economic package which is suitable for commercial project advance and cooperation.

Pyle said that Sapphire would continue to work on the project for several years.

Numerous speakers at the Algae Biomass Summit have noted that while the basic technical capability of transforming algae into fuels, chemicals or other products has been well established, the ability to do so viably from an economic perspective and at the necessary scale is still extremely problematic.

The Sapphire demonstration is integrating ideas about production, water management, algal oil and water separation, and the refining of products—some of the major cost barriers to the nascent algal fuels and chemical industry.

Sapphire, said Pyle, views the problem almost entirely as an agricultural problem.

Issues of agricultural production—yield, crop protection, harvestability—are the same problems that every single agricultural system in the world deals with. What this project does is bring the three ideas together, and demonstrates means of agricultural production and commercialization that is suitable for this kind of very low cost, very high volume production scheme.

...These are very large projects, they take enormous amounts of effort and enormous amounts of capital. Those of us who are in the energy business and are here to succeed need to be very realistic about the kind of effort it takes. That’s the kind of vision I think we all share as scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. We do have to come together and get focused for the long haul.

—Jason Pyle

Responding to the discussion question of the critical success factor for the algal energy industry, Pyle said:

What is the critical success factor? I think the critical success factor is the same for everyone in this audience... and that is to maintain demand. If we as a society maintain demand for new energy products, then all other things will happen. As long as there is demand for what we are doing, money will flow to our companies. This will allow us to do technology development, allow us to do these kinds of projects, and basically accomplish all our goals. That’s part of all our responsibilities. Maintain the public’s appreciation for what we are doing, and maintain demand.



America is great at jumping on the bandwagon with both feet and much fanfare but quickly losing heart when immediate profits are not forthcoming.
This process may take a long time to fine tune and get right. Let's hope some of these people have a longterm view.


Long term capital was discussed in the late 80s as something needed after the bottom line quick return mentality of Wall Street. I saw little or nothing come from that talk, investors are still more interested in high profits and quick returns.

The only patient capital I have seen is government, but we have had a no new taxes and hate government mentality for decades. We are stuck in the middle making little progress while Abu Dhabi funds $15 billion for solar projects.

This does not mean that we can not make progress, but Americans are more inclined to swing for the fence in a we can do anything if we try mentality. Mean while Denmark leads in wind turbines after we had incentives and development for them in the 70s only to have that come to a halt in the 80s when incentives were eliminated.


"...the critical success factor is ...that is to maintain demand."
One easy step to maintain demand is to tax gasoline. Gas should not drop below $3/gal (probably more like $5/gal). Any price below that should be made up of taxes to maintain the price. This would help pay off our scandalous debt, AND jump start demand for alternatives.


And, uh, where does the 210 tonnes of H2 come from?
How renewable is that component?
What's the EROIE of the whole process, counting the H2?


H2 could be derived from the methane or from an associated gasification process. Another critique would be in regards to catalysis: are there any precious metal catalysts and what are their lifecycles? What infrastructure is required beyond what they have pictured in their PFD?



The interesting thing about your comments seem to indicate that you're referring to government policy in relation to fuels. It's a terrible idea to interfere so greatly with markets by doubling (or more..) the price of such a widely used commodity.

If you truly want long term innovation with support from the government, provide research money to universities and organizations with promising technology. These sorts of things take time and the patience of thousands of entrepreneurs but will derive the optimal solution. Subsidies actually tend to reduce useful innovation because there is less of a focus on cost reduction.

The federal government only cares about the current hot button issue, which changes with the seasons.


bryan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. i don't claim to know anything about anything. But i do notice large fluctuations in gasoline prices (for all kinds of reasons). When gas is cheap is really hurts the chance of people switching to EV's or PHEV's or whatever.
If gasoline cost $8/galloon, for example, people would be clamoring for any kind of alternative.

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