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An aerial view of Sapphire Energy's integrated biorefinery in Luna County, New Mexico. | Photo courtesy of Sapphire Energy.

An aerial view of Sapphire Energy's integrated biorefinery in Luna County, New Mexico. | Photo courtesy of Sapphire Energy.

For most people, the notion that the green gunk coating various pond and river bottoms is a potential fuel source sounds like science fiction. But the fact is, several projects sponsored by the Energy Department are actively developing various ways to turn that “green gunk”, called algae, into a renewable and sustainable transportation fuel that will help reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Sapphire Energy, Inc. is one of the Energy Department’s Recovery Act-sponsored Integrated Biorefinery projects using algae, with the addition of sunlight and CO2, to produce a green crude oil that can be refined into three of the most important liquid fuels we use today: gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In fact, Sapphire is currently constructing a demonstration-scale Integrated Algal Biorefinery (IABR) in Luna County, near Columbus, New Mexico that will create 30 full-time positions to develop and operate the facility. The goals of this project are to demonstrate that algae can consume approximately 56 metric tons of CO2 per day and produce, on average, 100 barrels of green crude oil per day, or approximately 1 million gallons per year of fuel. If successful, the project will demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of the algae to green fuels process that will form the basis for a series of commercial scale biorefineries.

In order to bring this novel technology to economic viability, Sapphire Energy is working at both the lab scale and the demonstration scale. Just this month, Sapphire Energy, Inc. established the type of high quality lab-scale work that they are working on by publishing the article, "An exogenous chloroplast genome for complex sequence manipulation in algae" in the Nucleic Acids Research Journal. "The model of truly being able to change the world for the better—you’ve got to achieve scale in order to do that," said CJ Warner, President and Chairman, Sapphire Energy Inc., based in San Diego.

Sapphire Energy is one example of the way in which the Biomass Program is supporting research into how algae, grown in open ponds, can be used to produce cost-competitive, high-performance advanced biofuels. To learn about other Biomass Program-sponsored algae projects, visit the program website.