LC Bulletin: Desert researchers get crude results

October 15, 2010. Retrieved online October 19, 2010 from Gabriel Vasquez, Las Cruces Bulletin

Southern NM’s biofuel industry has national implications

Momentous scientific and manufacturing advances have marked the trail blazed by American innovation over the last 200 years.

That innovation continues in the arid desert of southern New Mexico, where private and public research firms are investing their expertise and money into developing green crude from algal fuel.

“There is a biofuels revolution in New Mexico,” said U.S. Rep. Harry Teague during a biofuels roundtable discussion Monday, Oct. 11, at the Doña Ana Community College Workforce Center. “It is an industry that has tremendous potential to grow and expand.”

At the roundtable, representatives from Sapphire Energy, the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Material Management, New Mexico State University, the state’s Economic Development Department and the Southwestern Biofuels Association discussed both economic and social implications of developing large-scale biofuel production facilities in southern New Mexico.

“We need to be making energy in America and making jobs in America,” Teague said. “The biofuels industry will help us make it in America.”

The business model for the large-scale production of algae-based biofuel is in its early stages. Already, Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based company backed by two of the biggest venture capitalists in the world – Bill Gates and the Rockefeller family – has set up a 100acre test-and-demonstration facility near Las Cruces in preparation for a much larger biofuel production facility.

The company plans to break ground on the 300-acre biofuel refinery in Luna County, near Columbus, early next year.

“We have a very unique technology in that it uses a combination of CO2, algae and non-potable water that delivers a drop-in replacement for transportation fuel,” said Tim Zenk, Sapphire’s vice president of corporate industry, in conjunction with academia and the state government, to develop a biofuel business model that pays off and creates jobs for New [Mexico]….

…affairs. “We’re talking about algae oil that can be converted and refined to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.” Similarly, Massachusetts company Joule Unlimited Inc. is looking at New Mexico to build its first biofuel production facility. Joule President Bill Sims said the state is at the top of his company’s list. The Joule plant, at an estimated 5,000 acres, would create up to 1,500 jobs in the state, he said.

Bringing more energy jobs to New Mexico is also the focus of the Southwestern Biofuels Association, said SWBA spokesperson Maria Zannes.

“We’re here about jobs,” she said. “It’s what we focused on when the SWBA first started to develop its statewide plan.”

…. Meghan Starbuck, an NMSU associate professor of economics, has been part of SWBA’s primary counsel in developing that model.

“I’ve been working in biofuels for several years now, and I agree that biofuels is an important and exciting sector,” she said. “As a state and a country, it’s really vital for us moving forward and fixing the economic harm and damage of the last few years.” Starbuck calls the biofuels industry a “combination of high-tech science and agriculture,” the perfect fit for southern New Mexico.

By 2022, the biofuel industry will have to produce 21 billion gallons of transportation fuel to meet national energy standards, Starbuck said. “It will have to come from somewhere,and New Mexico is the place to start,” she said.

A “small” algal biofuel production facility that produces 100 million gallons of biofuel per year, such as the one Sapphire plans for Luna County, would generate about 454 direct and indirect jobs, Starbuck said. The value added to the state’s economy for such a facility would be about $28 million, with $8 million going directly into the state’s tax coffers, she said. Eventually, with several facilities around the state, the industry’s tax revenue could help offset the tax revenue received by the state’s oil and gas industry, which tends to fluctuate unpredictably from year to year.

“If we are able to capture 25 to 30 percent of that market it has a large impact on the state,” she said.

Read the Las Cruces Bulletin article.

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