San Diego has become a global leader in the field of biotechnology, thanks to a precious natural resource that most of us would never stop to think about.
Algae has emerged as a highly efficient source of renewable energy, and several innovative companies based in San Diego are at the forefront of its research and development.
Sapphire Energy was founded in 2007 with one goal in mind: “to change the world by developing a domestic, renewable source of energy that benefits the environment and hastens America′s energy independence.” Algae has emerged as one of the most attractive renewable sources for Sapphire.
The company’s website boasts its numerous accomplishments with algae-based biofuels and its contributions to offsetting global warming and climate change.
“In 2008, Sapphire successfully produced 91-octane gasoline from algae that fully conforms to ASTM certification standards. In 2009, we participated in a test flight using algae-based jet fuel in a Boeing 737-800 twin-engine aircraft. That same year, we provided the fuel for the world’s first cross-country tour of a gasoline vehicle powered with a complete drop-in replacement fuel containing a mixture of hydrocarbons refined directly from algae-based Green Crude.”
Sapphire defines Green Crude as “a renewable crude oil that is a result of our proprietary process of turning sunlight, CO2, and algae into green oils to be refined into fuel.”
The website also describes why algae has such an important role to play in the energy sector and the fight against global warming.
“Algae is one of nature′s most prolific and efficient photosynthetic plants; in fact, it is the source of the earth′s crude oil when algae bloomed millions of years ago…Further, algae has a short growing cycle and does not require arable land or potable water. Algae′s number one nutrient source is CO2, consuming 13 to 14 kg of C02 per gallon of green crude.”
T2e Energy is another local company at the forefront of the algae-derived biofuel movement. It describes itself as a “transformative alternative and renewable energy company” that uses “patented and proprietary technology to produce algae derived biofuels that are competitive in world markets.”
The Carlsbad-based firm is currently focusing on two projects that seek to reduce carbon emissions and expand the biofuel sector. The first project consists of an extensive algae grow system that will capture emissions from pollution sources such as coal and gas-fired power plants. The company predicts the grow system will be able to produce a gallon of fuel for less than $1.00.
T2e also plans to create hundreds of T2 Energy facilities across the country that convert everyday household trash to electricity and biofuels. The company estimates each facility will produce 20 Megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power 10,000 – 12,000 homes and produce 11 million gallons of algae-based biofuels. The combined force of all facilities could produce enough electricity for over 8,000,000 homes and enough fuel for over 13 million cars in the US.
Each T2 Energy facility will operate under a two-step process that gasifies the waste instead of incinerating it and thereby contributing to CO2 emissions. The vast majority of the electricity produced by the facilities will be sold into the local power grid. The other outputs of the waste-to-energy process, including the resulting carbon dioxide, will be used as inputs for the next step in the process: creating algae biofuels.
The shift towards algae-based biofuels has echoed throughout the entire energy industry. Giants like ExxonMobil and Shell have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into researching biofuels, and have demonstrated their interest in collaborating with companies like Sapphire and T2e Energy.
However, certain experts have questioned the practicality of algae-derived biofuels as an alternative to traditional energy sources like oil or gas. Some have suggested any company that produces them would be forced to charge consumers close to $33 a gallon, eliminating any competitive advantage they might offer. They believe more research is needed before algal biofuels can truly be tested on the market.