Change the World: Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm, illustrated

October 2, 2012 |

Eric Clapton performs his Grammy-winning "Change the World"

Growing crude oil as a crop – Sapphire Energy and its Green Crude Farm – can it be the sunlight in your universe and change the world?

What does it look like? How does it work? The Digest does the show and tell.

As locations go, Columbus, New Mexico is hard to find but is a pretty good place to stage the first attempt, here on Planet Earth, to cultivate crude oil as an agricultural crop.

Let’s say that again – growing crude oil as an agricultural crop. It’s never been done before. Not a crop for something to eat, or to wear, or for materials for walls or floors – but something that is deep inside all three: energy itself.

To do so, three partners are attempting to do something else that has never been achieved before – using algae as a major, global crop platform – not on the scale that has produced vitamin and nutritional supplements, but on the scale and at the costs more closely associated with the dozen or so great staple crops around the world. Which is to say, this is a tall order. A monumental, change the world attempt.

The partners? The US Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the private investors behind Sapphire Energy – who have jointly financed the construction of Sapphire’s Green Crude Farm, of which 100 acres is in place, out of an eventual 300-acre facility, converting brackish water, CO2 and sunlight into oil-rich microalgae, from which a crude oil is extracted.

The resonance

Traditional chile pepper harvest to the left, using freshwater; algae cultivation to the right, using brackish groundwater; In the background, mountains in Mexico.

There’s some historical resonance in the site for those who trace the resolve to restore US energy independence to the 9/11 attacks. Columbus is the border town to Mexico’s Chihuahua state wherefrom Pancho Villa, in 1916, staged the last armed incursion by a foreign power on to US soil.

There’s some geological resonance. Columbus is sufficiently hot, flat and uncrowded – primarily because, millions of years ago, an algae-abundant ocean called the Western Interior Seaway or the Niobraran Sea sat right here.

If you connect the demise of the Seaway with the hydrocarbon-rich shale formations that are found all over the eastern slopes of the Rockies – formed as sea retreated, from the Dakotas to the West Texas plains – well, you get a bonus star. That old algae? After millions of years of maturing under geologic pressure, it’s known as petroleum and forms much of the current US reserves.

There’s some agricultural resonance, too. On the site of Sapphire’s Green Crude farm, agriculture ceased in the early 1970s when salt intrusions into the groundwater made it impossible to carry on with the cultivation of chili peppers and cotton. It’s of the reasons that 57 percent of the population of Columbus lives below the poverty line.

All that resonance has resulted in a suitable patch of ground – Sapphire owns 3,000 acres here, graded on a 1 percent incline. The sunlight is abundant, and the temperature avoids the extreme highs that kill off algae. And there’s plenty of salty groundwater that is unsuitable for traditional agriculture. According to the National Ground Water Association, “75 percent of New Mexico’s groundwater is too saline for most uses without treatment.”

The CO2

CO2 services are provided by Linde, who are tasked with figuring out the best way to scale - through co-locating with a CO2 emitter or tapping in to the CO2 pipeline system

CO2? For this small scale operation aimed at producing 100 barrels a day of crude oil, the CO2 is trucked in. But, keep in mind, the nation’s CO2 pipeline system – built primarily for enhanced oil recovery and use in drilling operations – centers around Denver City in West Texas, and the Cortez pipeline runs through New Mexico.

To secure the long-term source of CO2 – for example, through co-location with a power plant or by tapping the pipelines – that’s where Sapphire has partnered with Linde as its CO2 acquisition partner.

Duke University created this graphic of the US CO2 pipeline system back in 2008 - note the proximity to West Texas and New Mexico.

Now, let’s look at the Farm itself. How does it work? Growing algae is finished science – but growing algae at yields, and with costs, that compete on the economics with petroleum – that’s another.

The Dogma

The labs in Las Cruces, NM where Sapphire tests its dogma-busting algae

What has been removed, to some extent, is cost. But what really has been removed is dogma. Dogma that begins with “algae is…” or “algae isn’t…” or “you have to…” or “you can’t just….” – dogma that has built up as subtly and inflexibly as shale itself.

It’s understandable. Algae is the absolute bottom of the food chain – – the Chihuahua of the waters – designed by Nature to be weak, and preyed upon by zooplankton and other microscopic predators. There a pretty good list of the dogma around algae in “38 reasons Algae will never replace oil”, here.

Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm is still in the “if it works…” stage – though not at all insofar as producing, harvesting and extracting crude oils from an algae farm. Even on the 30 acres that Sapphire is operating at a time, right now – that’s finished science. There’s no doubt they can do it. Doing so at the right cost – they’ll be proving out their case over the next four years, as they build out to a 5,000 barrel per day scale – 76 million gallons per farm per year.

Passive agriculture

Paddlewheels, motors and plastic liners - part of the design on the Green Crude Farm's first phase. Phase 2 foregoes the liners for dirt ponds. Future phases aim to eliminate the paddle wheels to reduce energy intensity and cost.

But here’s what we know — what Sapphire has learned – or, rather, relearned about agriculture. It’s Zen-like in its passivity. Nature never acts unless absolutely necessary – activity takes energy, and energy is a precious resource that must be conserved – whether you are a bear, plant or a microalgae farm.

So, the first thing you’ll see at Sapphire is an attempt to build the most passive system you can imagine. The bustle of activity is confined to the harvest and extraction areas. The Farm itself – well, if you see a moving part or anything man-made at all, there’s someone at Sapphire right now trying to figure out how to remove it.

In fact, that’s really what Sapphire is up to – like Apple, using its considerable force of expertise in order to create simplicity and reduce costly complexity.

The Farm

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

The proxy here is rice cultivation.

You start with flattish land. Not flat land, as our friend Energy Skeptic and the dogmatics assumed – flat land doesn’t work, because then you have to move the water. That costs. But flattish works, a slight grade as you find in much of agriculture. That way, you get a gravity assist in flowing water downhill. When it reaches the bottom of the farm, it can be pumped back to the top with very energy-efficient pump technology. Much more effective that energy-intensive paddle wheels.

Like rice, the field is flooded. Abundant water is at hand. For example, Texas has 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater. Enough, at the 5,000 gallon per acre per year level to replace every gallon of refined petroleum produced here on Earth.

The strains? Sapphire has tested millions of candidate traits and strains in its labs in San Diego – its throughput as a synthetic biology shop is renowned. That’s like sorting out all the hopeful young athletes from those that will compete at the Olympic Trials. Only the chosen few proceed to Sapphire’s pilot facility and test outdoor ponds in Las Cruces, about 50 miles east of Columbus. From that group of candidates, a winter and a summer algae have been selected at Sapphire. Right now, they are ready to transition the ponds over to winter algae.

The Scope

The underlying land in Columbus, NM - salt intruded groundwater made traditional agriculture impossible - but the land was left with a 1 percent grade from cotton and chil pepper planters of long ago, making it suitable for a gravity-assisted algae production.

Sapphire’s operation is, by algae standards, massive. 100 acres finished out, 300 in total in scope for this project. Working ponds up to 2 acres in size – double that previously though possible.

For this phase, you see plastic liners and paddlewheels. Those are expected to be gone in the next design phase.

The Predators and Pests

A classic algae predator munches microalgae at Sapphire Las Cruces, NM lab - the brown color indicates the ingested algae

Defending the weak, that’s a tough job. There are competitors, pests, diseases and predators to worry about – the same as for all forms of agriculture, except to say that microalgae are weaker and smaller than anything else.

The focus at Sapphire is understanding the science by which all four groups wreak their havoc. Like a scout team in football, there are science teams at Sapphire that are dedicated to developing predators and competitor, studying their behavior – the teams’ job it is to defeat each candidate algae strain.

The good news – victory in microalgae is in the aggregate – like salmon heading upstream and running the gauntlet of the waiting bears, the object of the exercise is to overwhelm the bears with numbers, and then reproduce quickly and massively.

Think of it this way. If algae doubles its mass every 24 hours, as most strains do, in a 365-day growing season starting with two kilos of algae, you’d produce more biomass by the 4th of July than the entire mass of the known universe. Bottom line, you can afford to lose some along the way. If 99.99999999999% of the algae is overwhelmed by pests, predators, competitors or disease, you’d still produce more biomass than the known universe by September. So, you get the idea.

The Combine

The DAF )diffused air floatation) technology used in wastewater treatment is well-suited to Sapphire's cost goals

OK, so you have microalgae in a very, very low concentration in water. Perhaps as much as 1 percent. How do you get them out of the water – affordably? Harvest has been perplexing farmers for millenia – as they have sought to automate what was, originally, a manual operation for every known crop.

Today, we have rice combines that have replaced manual laborers in the field. Sugarcane harvesters are set to replace cane workers. Corn combines have replaced corn cribs.

In the case of microalgae, DAF technology is employed at Sapphire, and screwpresses to further drive out the water. That’s diffused air flotation – essentially, you generate microscopic bubbles that bond with the algae and they rise together to the surface. It’s used in wastewater treatment. In algae cultivation, it was avoided because the limit of DAF’s concentrating power is around 15 percent, and the dogma in algae is that extraction couldn’t be done without a drier form of the biomass. Hence the use of drying technologies and centrifuges. Too expensive.

Ginning and Fractioning

One aspect of ginning technology at Sapphire's Green Crude Farm extracts algae from water

Which brings us to the gin – which is to say, to Sapphire’s wet extraction technology. Like extracting cotton seeds affordably from the cotton balls — it’s their key technology, their Eli Whitney breakthrough and secret sauce, in so many ways. They don’t talk about it much, and except to say that they have it, and can affordably wet extract their crude oils from the 15 percent concentrations.

A partial view of Sapphire's ginning technology

You see, affordable wet extraction makes DAF affordable and, combined with passive farming techniques to combat predators, eliminate the cost of moving water, use dirt-lined ponds, and rely on brackish water- that’s essentially the secret of how you grow algae at scale, affordably.

The Crude


After extraction, what do you have. Green crude oil. Suitable, as with all crude, for shipping to refineries for conversion to everyday fuel and chemical products. It’s drop-in – suitable for pipelines and existing refinery infrastructure – and results in an infrastructure-compatible, drop-in fuel.

The bottom line

When will we know? 2018, finally – when the 5000 barrel per day facility is built out and is producing at full scale. Until then, we will have the data from the Green Crude Farm to assure us, or not, that the results can be scaled from a 300-acre collection of 1- and 2-acre ponds to a facility 50 times that size.

What we know for now is this. The resources of CO2, sunlight, and brackish water are sufficient – in the Sapphire approach – they have made it come together into a working end-to-end technology. We have yet to confirm that the costs will come down as far as making $100 barrels of oil.

Given the combination of sunlight, flattish land that has fallen out of agriculture, brackish groundwater, and access to the Denver City CO2 pipeline hub – we wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see West Texas emerge as the global leader in green crude fuels. Wouldn’t that be just a darn surprise to all the Texans who can’t find a nice thing to say about advanced drop-in renewable fuels. A new Texaco rising out of oil fields that never deplete.

Drill, baby, drill? Indeed, drill away. The world needs that CO2 pipeline that drilling supports.

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