LC Bulletin: Embracing the green crude revolution

June 11, 2010. Retrieved online June 15, 2010 from Gabriel Vasquez, Las Cruces Bulletin

Biofuel industry works to put a dent on diesel, looks to NM for new opportunities

Algae, mostly single-cell organisms that use the sun to convert energy and exert a “slime” that contains up to 30 times more oil than crops such as soybeans, could be the solution for the future fuel needs of the heavy truck and aviation industries.

“There’s a lot of hype today about algae, and rightfully so,” said José Olivares, executive director of the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bio-Products. “There’s a lot of promise in algae, but there are also a lot of technological challenges associated with algae.”

Certain strains of microalgae, very small organisms – about one micron and smaller than a human hair in diameter – produce oil under the right condition, converting other things like sugar, cellulose and carbon dioxide into oil as a storage mechanism for survival. These algae will produce oil up to 50 to 80 percent of its weight.

“The promise is that it produces a lot of oil,” Olivares said. “There are not many plant organisms out there that use this much oil. It can produce it fast and it can reproduce itself and have a harvest in days.”

The high-yielding algae doesn’t need much processing or refining before it can be used to power a car, truck or plane, and the multitude of sites suitable for its production are more than enough to put a serious dent in the imports of foreign oil. This algae “hype” has prompted energy entrepreneurs in the country to invest into perfecting a way to turn the pond scum into dollars.

“Our hope is to be able to take on this dream that our kids have – to replace the oil industry,” Olivares said.

Local growth

Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates, along with Venrock Associates, the Rockefeller family’s venture capital firm, have invested some $100 million into Sapphire Energy Inc., a California-based company with a 100-acre testing facility in Las Cruces.

Sapphire, with 140 employees, has also attracted $104 million in federal funding to develop a 300-acre site in southern New Mexico to build the first algal biofuel refinery to produce the renewable, green gasoline.

The company’s Las Cruces testing facility has been operating for about 20 months and groundbreaking for the new refinery is planned for September, according to company officials.

Bill Sims, president and CEO of Joule Unlimited Inc., a biofuels company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., is also looking to New Mexico to expand its operations.

The company has genetically engineered microorganisms similar to algae and has developed a “revolutionary” process to convert sunlight and waste carbon dioxide directly into clean, fungible diesel fuel, “bypassing the limitations of biofuel production.”

“As a result of this process, we will be able to produce liquid hydrocarbons as low as $30 per barrel,” Sims said.

The company is banking on its ability to build above-ground fuel reserves that can be deployed wherever needed, overcoming the risk and cost of oil and gas exploration and production. Sims said he and other members of his company have been in active conversation with the economic development leadership in the state to bring a Joule production facility to New Mexico.

“We are looking for our first location for a commercial facility and have been in discussion with folks in New Mexico, and other states as well,” he said. “We’re very interested in (developing a site) here in New Mexico. The land in this area has all the key requirements we need – sunlight, open land, access to carbon dioxide and non-fresh water.”

Sims said the Joule production facility, at 5,000 acres, would create up to 1,500 jobs and produce 1.8 million barrels of diesel per year and use 750 tons of carbon dioxide.

“Truly we believe this is a solution our government and most people need, and we are ready to introduce it to the world,” Sims said. “We hope to do so right here in New Mexico.”

The promise of Camelina

Jeff Trucksess, founder of Green Earth Fuels, a Houston-based biodiesel producer, is working to commercialize Camelina, an oilseed crop known for its low-nutrient requirements and insect resistance that’s seen as a viable feedstock for the biodiesel industry.

Green Earth Fuels is already one of the largest biodiesel producers in the country, producing 95 million gallons per year.

The company has identified a strain of Camelina that’s well-suited for the Southwest desert environment. The strain is hearty and low maintenance.

Sustainable Oils, a spinoff seed company of Green Earth Fuels, is looking to commercialize the strain by selling it to farmers and owners to grow as a dedicated energy crop. The company is growing trials of Camelina in New Mexico.

“It’s a great opportunity and has great potential,” Trucksess said.

The energy crop, which produces about 100 gallons of oil per acre, can be rotated with other environment-appropriate crops to maximize profit, Trucksess said.

“We are having significant success doing this,” he said.

The limitations to starting Camelina facilities in the state are purchasing crop insurance for a relatively new product, the lengthy process it takes for herbicide registration – one to two years – and to use the by-product for cattle and animals, it also takes about a year to attain the proper licensing.

“I think because of the opportunity in New Mexico and the leadership in the state, it’s really a place we can make it happen,” Trucksess said.

A coordinated effort

A statewide push to attract the biofuel industry and develop a comprehensive plan for biofuel production in the state is also placing much of its focus on Camelina.

The Southwest Biofuels Association is a nonprofit organization that promotes biofuels through partnerships between the Southwest’s biofuel industry, universities, national laboratories, state agencies, educators, entrepreneurs and environmental organizations. Its founding members include Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico State University.

“We agreed that our state of New Mexico needed a coordinated, strategic and most important, intelligent comprehensive plan to capture more than our share of the growing biofuels industry,” said Maria Zannes, SWBA outreach director.

The organization is also promoting Camelina as viable feedstock for the biofuels industry.

“For every 12,000 acres cultivated with seed energy crops, 1 million of gallons of biofuel could be produced,”Zannes said. “If only one half of the suitable land in the state is cultivated in rotation with other crops, we’re looking at $250 million a year into the economy and more than 5,700 new jobs created.”

A main component of the organization is to create a step-by-step comprehensive agenda to bring green jobs to the state.

“This plan announces that New Mexico is open for business in the biofuels arena,” Zannes said.

Read the Las Cruces Bulletin article.

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