LC Bulletin: Sapphire develops NM bio-fuels potential

January 31, 2014. Retrieved online February 3, 2014 from Alta LeCompte, Las Cruces Bulletin

Senator visits with eye on federal policies

[Excerpts below reprinted with permission: Read the complete Las Cruces Bulletin article]

On a tour Thursday, Jan. 23, of Sapphire Energy’s research and development facility in the West Mesa Industrial Park, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich addressed the unique nature of the advanced biodiesel industry and the challenge it poses for legislators.

“Advanced bio-fuels are caught between the silos of agricultural regulations and oil and gas industry regulations,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Heinrich said he wants to make sure the process of regulating the emerging industry is “thoughtful.”

“I am continuing to watch how regulations are framed that deal with how bio-fuels are generated to make sure we have a system that works and that incentivizes production,” he said.

Hosting Heinrich at Sapphire Energy were Bryn Davis, New Mexico operations manager; Dean Venardos, vice president of operations; and Becky Ryan, associate director of field testing.

Engineers on site

As they left the administration building to tour Sapphire Energy’s experimental algae farm, Heinrich and Davis discovered they have something in common: Both are mechanical engineers.

Sapphire’s Las Cruces site is the largest, photosynthetic, fully integrated, algae-to-energy testing facility in the world.

“Everything we have here is a microcosm of what we have in Columbus,” Davis told Heinrich. “We have 3 acres of ponds, and they have 100, with a potential for 300.”

“Southern New Mexico meets all our criteria – land, sun, brackish water and university access,” Davis said.

Because New Mexico is a small, agricultural state, the regulatory environment is easier to work with than it is in large states such as Texas, Davis added.

Algae: A national fuel resource

Heinrich said bio-fuel from algae is important to the nation as well as the state and locality.

“Bio-fuel from algae is an important energy source for the future,” Heinrich said. “It is so well adapted to what we have here in New Mexico.”

Open land and brackish water are well suited to algae production, he said, and using algae to produce fuel means crop land is not being taken out of production as it is when agricultural products such as corn are grown for bio-diesel.

Local scientists staff lab

Inside the lab, the senator had an opportunity to observe under a microscope a rotifer, a tiny pest with about 1,100 cells that preys on algae.

“Becky has great people on her staff,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of ability here.”

Among the local talent are New Mexico State University students doing summer internships and recent graduates doing field placement.

Sapphire is the first – and only – company to produce a renewable source of crude oil on a continuous basis from algae biomass.

A continuum of R&D

Most of the research Sapphire does at the molecular level is done at its San Diego headquarters.

Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm or IABR (Integrated Algal Biorefinery) in Columbus is the world’s first commercial demonstration scale algae-to-energy farm, integrating the entire value chain of algae-based crude oil production, from cultivation to production to extraction of ready-to-refine Green Crude.

In 2009, Sapphire Energy participated in Continental Airlines Boeing 737 and JAL Boeing 747 test flights providing algae-based jet fuel. That same year, the company provided fuel for the world’s first cross-country tour of a gasoline vehicle powered by a drop-in replacement fuel from algae-based Green Crude. In 2013, Sapphire signed its first commercial customer, Tesoro.

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