LC Bulletin: Growing green in the desert

August 31, 2012. Retrieved online September 4, 2012 from Richard Coltharp, Las Cruces Bulletin

Sapphire develops oil from algae

Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Richard Coltharp. Sapphire Energy Vice President of Corporate Affairs Tim Zenk eyes his company’s prize, green algae in the final steps before it becomes oil. The Sapphire facility in Columbus, N.M., features 22 acres of algae ponds, with room to expand to 300 acres.

An agricultural renaissance is taking place in a Columbus, N.M, field that had lain fallow for 40 years.

The field, which once grew chile, is now growing a different kind of green.

“Green crude” is the nickname Sapphire Energy has given to the end product of what it’s growing in the southern New Mexico desert.

Other nicknames it’s had over the years are “black gold,” “Texas tea.”

We’re talking oil.

This oil does not come from the ground, but is developed from algae grown in specially designed ponds in Las Cruces and Columbus, where the first construction phase of Sapphire’s Green Crude Farm was completed this month. Ponds in Columbus are as much as a mile long and a quarter-mile deep.

“Bringing our Green Crude Farm online is not only an important accomplishment for Sapphire Energy, but a critical step toward a viable alternative energy future,” said Cynthia “CJ” Warner, Sapphire’s CEO and chairman.

“What was once a concept is now becoming a reality and model for growing algae to make

a renewable crude oil for energy. We look forward to sharing our progress as the Green Crude Farm moves to its next stage.”

Oil is now being created every day at the sites. The finished product looks exactly like crude oil, only with a greenish tint.

Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Richard Coltharp. Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm in Columbus, N.M., employs 35 full-time staff.

Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Richard Coltharp. Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm in Columbus, N.M., employs 35 full-time staff.

Creating oil from algae may sound strange to some, but as Sapphire’s New Mexico operations manager, Bryn Davis, likes to say: “All oil comes from algae. It’s just that it’s 500 million years old.”

A few years ago, the founders of Sapphire, in a quest for a sustainable energy source, began looking for the most easily photosynthesized plant. They found it in algae and set about the plan of growing algae and converting it to oil.

Convinced of the scientific viability of the $135 million project, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined the project in a major way.

“We got a $50 million DOE grant,” said Tim Zenk, Sapphire’s vice president of corporate affairs at a recent visit to Columbus. “To keep the grant, we have to meet monthly milestones, and there’s a DOE independent engineer on site to make sure everything’s being met.”

So far, everything is being met, Zenk said, adding that construction costs have been on budget and things are actually slightly ahead of schedule. He said the project is well on the way to its target of producing 100 barrels of oil a day by the end of 2014.

Sapphire invested $85 million of its own funds, and the USDA backed that up with a $54.4 million loan guarantee.

Experimental kitchen

At Las Cruces’ West Mesa Industrial Park, shiny silver concertina wire decorates the top of the walls surrounding Sapphire’s Test and Development Site.

Behind the walls, scientists work in what Davis describes as an “experimental kitchen,” developing many strains of algae in search of the most efficient product. Even if a strain proves woefully inefficient, it’s not considered a mistake.

“There’s nothing like a failure in our business,” Davis said. “If it didn’t work, it’s another piece of data.”

As an example, one strain of algae could perform poorly during the heat of the summer, but could prove to do well in the winter.

Sapphire currently has 14 strains and is building a “library of strains,” Davis said. Indeed, with each strain, researchers create a “book,” which is a package outlining all of the strain’s characteristics.

Testing begins in a small Petri dish, then progresses to larger laboratory containers. The lab is filled with liquid in varying shades of green in varying sizes of containers.

Strains that show promise are tested in progressively larger outdoor ponds at the Las Cruces facility. The top performing strains are promoted to the Columbus site, where the largest ponds are 2.2 acres.

After it’s introduced, algae grows in the Columbus ponds and is monitored until it’s ready for harvest, based on the specs provided in the library package, which lists ideal measures for density, pH and other factors.

Parasites and predators

Can you visualize something as small as two-millionths of a meter? Not without a microscope. Something that small, in the form of a parasite or predator, could prove a big threat to certain algae strains.

Chris Meenach, a New Mexico State University agronomy graduate, works as a scientist in Sapphire’s crop protection lab.

“We get a new algae, throw it out in the environment and see what kills it,” Meenach said. “Then we go after the bad guys.

“We stay one step ahead of the next thing that’s going to come along and kill our crop.”

Davis has a term of endearment for the crop protection scientists: “Seers into the future.”

“I can take them a test tube, and in a day they can tell me what will attack it,” Davis said. “In two days, they can tell me how to stave it off.”

You coulda stayed here

When you think of New Mexico and oil, you think of Hobbs, Artesia, wells, rigs and roughnecks.

Sapphire’s methodology, however, is more like agriculture.

Rebecca White, a PhD biologist who is director of cultivation at the Columbus site, said she always has one eye on the weather.

“The Farmer’s Almanac,” she said. “I’ve got it right by my bed and read it every day.”

Growing up on a farm in Quail, Texas, a dot on the map in the state’s panhandle, White knew all about tending cotton and cattle. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas and her doctorate at Texas A&M. The schooling took her 10 years.

When she took the job with Sapphire, she described the operation over the phone to her grandfather, a third-generation farmer back in Texas.

“He wasn’t quite getting it,” White said. “So I said, ‘Grandpa, I’m going to be running the farm.’ “He said, ‘Well what the hell’d you go to school for so long for? You could have stayed and done that here.’”

New Mexico flavor

Of the 35 full-time employees at the Columbus site, White is one of only three who’s not a New Mexican. Columbus is in Luna County, which as of July had a 16.5 percent unemployment rate, the worst in the state. Zenk and White said they are hopeful Sapphire can continue to put a dent in that figure, both directly and indirectly through other jobs that can be created in the county to support Sapphire.

“One thing I’m really proud of is the ability we’ve had to bring people back to the place where they grew up,” White said.

One of those returnees is Gil Jones, former Las Cruces City Councillor who left the state and is now back as the operations manager in Columbus.

Staffing at the Las Cruces site is made up almost exclusively of locals, with a heavy dose of NMSU Aggie crimson. An example is process engineer Veronica Madewell, a Las Cruces native and NMSU graduate who Davis said has worked the “alpha and omega” of Sapphire. She has worked in the lab at the beginning, creating algae, and now works at the end, overseeing the conversion to crude. About 45 people work at the Las Cruces facility.

Read the Las Cruces Bulletin article

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