I Want a New Bug: Sapphire licenses spirulina from Earthrise for biofuels

March 1, 2012 |

In California, Sapphire Energy announced it has entered into a licensing agreement with Earthrise Nutritionals, to integrate Earthrise Nutritionals’ spirulina strain into Sapphire’s growing inventory of cyanobacteria and algae strains for algae-to-energy production.

The impact

As a result of this agreement, Sapphire Energy said it will “significantly improve its operational efficiency by expanding the range of strain choices available for producing Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude—a drop-in replacement for petroleum-based crude oil—that can be refined into diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline.”

Spirulina, until now

Until now, spirulina, has been used primarily for making nutraceuticals, such as dietary supplements, and food products. Adding Earthrise’s prokaryotic strain (cyanobacteria) to Sapphire’s own inventory of prokaryotic and eukaryotic (green algae) strains will enable Sapphire to produce fuel more efficiently at its Integrated Algal BioRefinery (IABR), now under construction in New Mexico.

Reaction from Sapphire and Earthrise

“This agreement is an example of Sapphire Energy’s ‘whole value chain’ strategy to integrate biotechnology, agriculture and engineering to deliver a sustainable system for Green Crude production from algae and cyanobacteria,” said CJ Warner, president of Sapphire Energy.

“There is no doubt about the opportunity for algae-based alternative fuel, and the fact that Earthrise Nutritionals, with its long-standing expertise in cultivating blue-algae strains, can help drive its availability is a development we embrace fully,” said Hiro Mochizuki, president and CEO of Earthrise Nutritionals.

The Bottom Line

It’s a new day for spirulina. Could be for Sapphire. Certainly, moving over to cyanobacteria from mainstream algae is an eyebrow-raising move. Cyanobacteria has not traditionally produced a lot of lipids, which are the foundational base for Sapphire’s Green Crude. Let’s see how that changes with Sapphire’s synthetic biology tools.

We also note that it was the first major tie-up of n algal biofuels company with one of the biopharma companies using algae as a platform. Cyanotech is another, while DSM bought Martek last year.

With Sapphire actively in construction of its Integrated Algal BioRefinery, it is unusual to be expanding the strain portfolio in such a dramatic fashion, through a licensing agreement, without a major opportunity in sight to dramatically improve the productivity in New Mexico; suggesting that Sapphire’s biology team has a challenge not unlike the US Republican Party in the 2012 presidential primaries  – identified some front-runners, but no candidate that has put the competition away.

Spirulina is a foundational platform – with the agreement, the Sapphire synthetic biology team will get underway on strain optimization. Safe to say that, since no one has worked as intensively on algal science as Sapphire, we’ll be seeing surprising levels of performance from spirulina in the near term or down the line.

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