Attention K-Mart Shoppers: Sapphire’s Green Crude on Sale Now

March 21, 2013 |
Sapphire's 3,000 acre Green Crude Farm stretches into the distance

Sapphire’s 3,000 acre Green Crude Farm stretches into the distance

Show me the gallons? Where’s all the algae fuel, you ask?

In Sapphire Energy’s case, it’s headed for Tesoro. 

In California, Sapphire Energy announced it has entered into a commercial agreement to sell crude oil from Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm in Columbus, New Mexico to Tesoro.

“The Green Crude Farm recently reached a new milestone: continuous cultivation and crude oil production,” Sapphire Energy said in a prepared statement.  “This begins the first step of a commercial relationship to process Green Crude oil from Sapphire’s future commercial facilities.” How much crude, and when. That is news that will unfold later.

What Sapphire is saying about its Green Crude

Sapphire Energy is now producing crude oil daily from algae biomass cultivated and harvested at the Green Crude Farm.  Oil extraction is conducted through a patented method for converting wet algae to crude oil, which enables algae to be processed without the need for a timely and costly drying step.  Wet extraction technology for algae-based crude oil has been considered one of the biggest challenges to commercialization.  With this process, which is the result of more than four years of research, development and field trials, the entire algae cell is now used in oil production, greatly improving yield. Furthermore, the process is scalable, and has proven to be effective with a wide range of algae strains.

In initial testing by Sapphire Energy, Green Crude oil was refined into on-spec ASTM 975 diesel fuel, proving its compatibility with the existing network of pipelines, refineries and transport systems.  Moving forward, the company plans to grow production significantly to further expand its commercial demonstration and begin the transition towards commercial-scale production.

What the Digesterati are saying about Sapphire’s Green Crude

Well, Sapphire doesn’t exactly make a habit of parading its technology for the world to see. For one, it has been a fast-evolving ride out in Sapphire-land — ideas in vogue three years ago have been supplanted by others — important to think of Sapphire as a company about a direction rather than a process.

Putting those two factors together — like journalists watching a Vatican election, we have to look for the smoke — which sometimes comes out grey, instead of a clear black or white.

Here’s what we have seen in the Vatican breeze: a steady stream of patent application activity from Sapphire relating to terpenes and catalytic cracking with a zeolite catalyst – using pulse reactors, possibly over a fluidized catalytic cracking bed, and fast reaction times.

Terpenes — we’ll come back to those in a sec.

The process technology? Catalytic cracking with pulse reactors has featured in some work with refining jatropha oils in the past — and also has been used in the oil industry for cracking purposes, including extracting bitumen from oil sands.

There has been some discussion around the industry of Sapphire using a pyrolysis-like process — rather, we see it starting to look a little like KiOR’s, focused as it may well be on a catalytic process using a novel process engineered around a FCC unit.

FCC – what’s that?

FCC units are for fluid catalytic cracking. An FCC unit is used in conventional oil refineries for the “heavy oils”, usually the long-chain molecules. An FCC unit cracks the long-chain molecules by contacting the feedstock at high temperature and moderate pressures, with a fluidized catalyst.

Why’s that important?

As Sapphire notes — one of its goals is wet extraction — which is to say, to avoid the energy and/or cost-intensive “drying” step of completely removing the water from the algae or the algae from the water — and you have the advantage, as Sapphire notes, that “the entire algae cell is now used in oil production, greatly improving yield.”

What’s this about terpenes?

You may never have heard of terpenes, but you know them by smell. Terpenes and terpenoids are the foundational molecules in just about anything that is used in aromatherapy – or that smells great in the plant world. Eucalyptus oil, for one. It’s not well known that Vitamin A (such as carotene) is tetraterpene. Also limonene and pinene — in case you like the smell of fresh lemons or the fresh pine.

Terpenes are hydrocarbons, and they can burn fiercely – making them excellent target molecules for fuel applications.

You can read more about terpenes and their future in fuels right here, in “Making superfuels affordable, via biofuels: the JP-10 story.”

Reaction from Sapphire and Tesoro

“In less than one year, Sapphire Energy has started up its commercial demonstration to grow algae; has produced crude oil from our farm; and now with Tesoro as our first commercial customer, we’re providing barrels of our oil to be refined for market use,” said Cynthia ‘CJ’ Warner, CEO and chairman of Sapphire Energy.  “This moment is enormously important for the industry as it validates the benefits and advantages of Green Crude, and confirms its place as a market-viable, refiner-ready, renewable crude oil solution.”

“Tesoro is continuously looking at new technologies for producing renewable fuels.  We are pleased to become a purchaser of Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude, which shows promise as an alternative fuel solution,” said Joel Larkins, vice president of Renewable Development at Tesoro.

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