The Algae Mill: Sapphire Energy, Linde Group to commercialize algae-to-crude upgrading technology

July 16, 2013 |

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

Companies Partner to Commercialize Hydrothermal Treatment Technology Used to Upgrade Algae into Crude Oil

If biofuels companies were golfers, Sapphire Energy would be Phil Mickelson, no doubt about it.

Phil’s widely popular, closely followed, with a friendliness that belies a mind like a steel trap, drawing huge galleries whenever he’s in the hunt, a lefty, a shotmaker of elegance and invention, with a reputation for going for broke when everyone else is playing it conservatively. Phil’s from San Diego, as fate would have it, just like Sapphire.

So, when news comes out of the Green Crude Farm, everyone takes notice. And this time, well they should – Sapphire and world-beating Linde (a global gas giant that might one day give Uranus a run for its money), have just announced they will expand their partnership to commercialize a new industrial scale conversion technology needed to upgrade algae biomass into crude oil.

Together, the companies will refine the hydrothermal treatment process developed and operated today by Sapphire Energy at pilot-scale.

In addition, they will jointly license and market the technology into an expanded list of industries, including algae, municipal solid waste, and farm waste, in order to upgrade other biomass sources into energy. The agreement spans a minimum of five years through the development of Sapphire Energy’s first commercial scale, algae-to-energy production facility.


OK, back to Sapphire school

If you’ve read our previous coverage of Sapphire, you’ll know that they are building their Green Crude Farm to cultivate drop-in hydrocarbon fuels as an agricultural crop.

It’s an astonishing goal, if you think upon it for any length of time.

Because you have to adapt or reinvent a whole bunch of agricultural practice to do it.

The Fields

First you have to build the farm itself to grow microalgae affordably and continuously. A whole bunch of companies and labs have thrown ideas at that one over the years, most without breakthrough success. Turns out you need a combination of passive farming techniques — to combat predators, eliminate the cost of moving water, use dirt-lined ponds, and rely on brackish water.

The Harvest

But then, you have algae, and a whole lotta water. Microalgae grow in a very, very low concentration. Think 1 percent algae, 99 percent water – on a good day. 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. So, you need an algae combine.

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.

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

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

The Gin

Now, you still have a whole bunch of algae, and what you really need is to wet-extract the oils, affordably. Or convert the whole biomass to an oil-like substance through technologies like hydrothermal liquefaction. To date, Sapphire has been known to be working on wet extraction.

Now, you probably know the story of cotton as a production crop. How the presence of tiny, sticky cottonseeds required all that handwork to extract — making cotton uneconomic. How a New Haven entrepreneur, Eli Whitney, visiting a Georgia plantation noticed a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence, and could only extract the feathers. How he applied similar ideas in developing a cotton gin.

A partial view of Sapphire's ginning technology

A partial view of Sapphire’s ginning technology

Which brings us to Sapphire’s algae gin – which is to say, to the Sapphire wet extraction technology. Like extracting cotton seeds affordably from the cotton balls — it’s a 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.

The Mill

Which leaves you with two remaining challenges. This is the part where you turn raw algae oils into useful products ready-for-sale. Call this the Mill.

First, you have oxygen-replete algae oils rather than hydrocarbon oils — so, hydrotreating will be employed to up-convert the lipids into drop-in fuels. Sapphire has been a long-time customer, now, of UOP’s hydrotreating technology, which has been used, for example, when Sapphire has provided algae-based jet fuel.

Second, there’s a lot more than just lipids in the algae cell — as much as 75% of the biomass comes in the form of proteins, carbs and the like.

That’s where hydrothermal treatment can be useful. This technology uses superheated steam (north of 200 degrees Celsius) _ and can use catalysts to speed up reaction times — to break down the residual biomass into a combination of char, gas and liquid bio-oil. That bio-oil can itself be upgraded to fuel.

A group of researchers from Italy and the Netherlands have been investigating and reporting on this technology. They write:

“HTT was investigated over a very wide range of temperatures (175–450 °C) and reaction times (up to 60 min)…The maximum oil yield (49 wt %) was obtained at 375 °C and 5 min reaction time, recovering 75% of the algal calorific value into the oil and an energy densification from 22 to 36 MJ/kg. A pioneering visual inspection of the cells after HTT showed that a large step increase in the HTT oil yield, when going from 225 to 250 °C at 5 min reaction time, coincided with a major cell wall rupture under these conditions….From the results obtained, we concluded that HTT is most suited as post-treatment technology in an algae biorefinery system, after the wet extraction of high value products, such as protein-rich food/feed ingredients and lipids.

More on that R&D effort, here.  And here too.

The value beyond Sapphire

Clearly, the companies realize that, beyond the value to Sapphire — a technology that can upgrade algae biomass to crude oil is going to have value in wastewater treatment. Wastewater facilities use algae to remove impurities from the water — including recovering nitrogen and phosphorus, that otherwise could create offshore or downstream algae blooms that result in oxygen-starved water that can kill off whole fishing industries.

These same wastewater facilities have been, for sure, on the hunt for uses for all the algae. Especially high-value uses.

Reaction from the partners

“Sapphire Energy is very pleased to build upon its already successful strategic partnership with Linde to build a commercial oil upgrading process designed to increase yield and lower the cost of crude oil production,” said Cynthia ‘CJ’ Warner, CEO and chairman of Sapphire Energy. “Large energy projects like we are building require very significant partnerships to fund the development of new technologies and make available engineering resources needed to bring these projects on line at commercial scale. We think Linde is a perfect partner to help Sapphire achieve this goal.”

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

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


“We have been working with Sapphire Energy for two years to develop a cost-efficient CO2 delivery system for commercial algae production. We have become confident with the company’s expertise and its capability to produce a low carbon and economic energy source from algae. After the positive experience gained, we decided to intensify our cooperation with Sapphire,” said Professor Dr. Aldo Belloni, Member of the Executive Board of Linde AG. “Based upon our profound engineering expertise, we will contribute to further develop and scale up Sapphire’s algae-to-crude-oil technology.”

The origins of the partnership

This growing partnership stems from Linde’s and Sapphire Energy’s agreement to develop a low cost, CO2 management system for open pond, algae-to-fuel production, which was previously announced in May 2011. Linde, the leading merchant CO2 supplier in the U.S., also became the exclusive supplier of CO2 for Sapphire Energy`s Green Crude Farm in Columbus, NM.

More on the story.

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