Las Cruces News Bulletin: Sapphire develops NM bio-fuels potential

Senator visits with eye on federal policies

By:  Alta LeCompte

On a tour Thursday, Jan. 23, of Sapphire Energy’s research and development facility in the West Mesa Industrial Park, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich addressed the unique nature of the advanced biodiesel industry and the challenge it poses for legislators.

“Advanced bio-fuels are caught between the silos of agricultural regulations and oil and gas industry regulations,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Heinrich said he wants to make sure the process of regulating the emerging industry is “thoughtful.”

“I am continuing to watch how regulations are framed that deal with how bio-fuels are generated to make sure we have a system that works and that incentivizes production,” he said.

“I’m working on an advanced bio-fuels letter with other senators for setting standards and making sure it is incentivized.”

Heinrich’s stop at Sapphire Energy was part of a visit to Doña Ana County that also included Ben Archer Health Center in Hatch and a press conference on the OrganMountains-Desert Peaks national monument proposal.

Hosting Heinrich at Sapphire Energy were Bryn Davis, New Mexico operations manager; Dean Venardos, vice president of operations; and Becky Ryan, associate director of field testing.

Engineers on site

As they left the administration building to tour Sapphire Energy’s experimental algae farm, Heinrich and Davis discovered they have something in common: Both are mechanical engineers.

Both are outnumbered in their workplaces by colleagues with different backgrounds.

Heinrich is the only engineer in the Senate.

Davis is surrounded by biologists and chemists at the Sapphire facility he runs in the West Mesa Industrial Park.

Sapphire’s Las Cruces site is the largest, photosynthetic, fully integrated, algae-to-energy testing facility in the world.

The Las Cruces facility is a midpoint between basic research Sapphire does in California and its commercial scale demonstration farm near Columbus, N.M.

“Everything we have here is a microcosm of what we have in Columbus,” Davis told Heinrich. “We have 3 acres of ponds, and they have 100, with a potential for 300.”

The next step – commercial production – calls for 40,000 acres of ponds, he added.

Getting there is a goal the senator and themanager hold in common.

“Southern New Mexico meets all our criteria – land, sun, brackish water and university access,” Davis said.

Because New Mexico is a small, agricultural state, the regulatory environment is easier to work with than it is in large states such as Texas, Davis added.

“I’m excited by the opportunity this kind of work represents for New Mexico,” Heinrich said. “As the process improves, New Mexico is the ideal place to grow algae and producebio-fuel. It has an important piece in diversifying our economy.”

Algae: A national fuel resource

Heinrich said bio-fuel from algae is important to the nation as well as the state and locality.

“Bio-fuel from algae is an important energy source for the future,” Heinrich said. “It is so well adapted to what we have here in New Mexico.”

Open land and brackish water are well suited to algae production, he said, and using algae to produce fuel means crop land is not being taken out of production as it is when agricultural products such as corn are grown for bio-diesel.

Making algae-based bio-fuel makes sense in terms of CO2 production and energy return, he said.

Stopping at a pond, Heinrich asked Ryan, a molecular biologist, about the challenges of crop protection in the outdoor growing environment.

Crop protection is a major concern, which Sapphire scientists address by developingstrains of algae capable of maintaining their dominance in an exposed environment, she explained “Ultimately we want it to be the winner,” she said, of the strains growing in Las Cruces – “the one that grows the fastest.”

Local scientists staff lab

Inside the lab, the senator had an opportunity to observe under a microscope a rotifer, a tiny pest with about 1,100 cells that preys on algae.

Ryan said the lab manages water chemistry in the ponds, where there is constant testing of the chemicals. It also supports the work of Sapphire’s oil extraction unit.

“Becky has great people on her staff,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of ability here.”

Among the local talent are New Mexico State University students doing summerinternships and recent graduates doing field placement.

Sapphire is the first – and only – company to produce a renewable source of crude oil on a continuous basis from algae biomass.

In 2011, the company began construction of the Green Crude Farm, the world’s first commercial demonstration algae-to-energy facility in Columbus, N.M.

This project was awarded $104 million in federal funding, including a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Construction of Phase 1 of this demonstration site, which includes 100 wet acres of algae ponds and all the processing equipment needed for the facility, which was completed on-time and on-budget in 2012. The Green Crude Farm has been in continuous operation ever since.

In 2013, the company announced the repayment of the remaining loan balance in full from the USDA after receiving additional equity from private investors.

A continuum of R&D

Most of the research Sapphire does atthe molecular level is done at its San Diego headquarters.

Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm or IABR (Integrated Algal Biorefinery) in Columbus is the world’s first commercial demonstration scale algae-to-energy farm, integrating the entire value chain of algae-based crude oil production, from cultivation to production to extraction of ready-to-refine Green Crude.

At 22 acres, the Las Cruces facility has more than 70 active ponds, varying in size from 14foot test ponds to 300-foot, million-liter production ponds.

In 2008, the company successfully produced 91-octane gasoline from algae that fully conformed to ASTM (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, according to sapphiregreenenergy.com.

In 2009, Sapphire Energy participated in Continental Airlines Boeing 737 and JAL Boeing 747 test flights providing algae-based jet fuel. That same year, the company provided fuel for the world’s first cross-country tour of a gasoline vehicle powered by a drop-in replacement fuel from algae-based Green Crude. In 2013, Sapphire signed its first commercial customer,Tesoro.