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Algae's Momentum Gaining but it's no Oil Revolution

By Daniel J. Graeber | Wed, 11 December 2013 23:16 | 1

A deal between refiner Phillips 66 and Sapphire Energy to develop green crude was lauded by advocates as the dawn and the emergence of a new renewable form of domestic oil. With a production target of around 65,000 barrels per day by 2025, however, the celebration may be premature.

Phillips 66 and green crude pioneer Sapphire Energy, Inc., agreed to work together to develop crude oil derived from algae to the commercial level. Both sides said they'd work to expand on Sapphire's test program to show green crude can be refined using traditional methods.

Sapphire Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Warner said the decision by Phillips 66 shows there is momentum building behind the development of algae as a petroleum alternative.

Related article: European Car Manufacturers and Oil Companies Join to Create a Biofuel Roadmap

"We’re looking forward to building a strong relationship with Phillips 66, an established leader in research and development for next generation fuels, who understands the opportunity our green crude oil holds as a feasible and sustainable crude oil choice for refiners," she said in a statement.

The U.S. Energy Department said algae-based fuels have the potential to displace 17 percent of the oil imported for use in the transportation sector and in August, Sapphire secured a $5 million grant from the federal government to help develop the refining process for algae-based fuels.

The Algae Biomass Organization said the deal between Sapphire and Phillips 66 marked a turning point in the effort to find alternatives to conventional crude oil.

"This step is a vital part of introducing a new fuel to market, and Phillips 66’s interest is another sign that algae cultivation technologies are gaining steam," the trade group said.

Sapphire in March secured a deal with a subsidiary of Tesoro Corp. to purchase crude oil from a so-called green crude farm in New Mexico. Tesoro was Sapphire's first commercial customer and should be receiving about 100 barrels of green crude oil by next year.

But green crude is nothing new. Exxon Mobil in 2009 reached an agreement to explore algae-based fuels in a $600 million deal with Synthetic Genomics. Last year, however, Exxon said getting algae to the commercial level was more difficult than expected.

Related article: Research Unlocks Algae Biofuel Potential

Merl Lindstrom, vice president of technology for Phillips 66, said the deal with Sapphire was the right one to make in order to produce a "refinery-ready" and sustainable alternative for his company. But it's expensive. The same study the Energy Department used to assess the potential for algae-based fuels in the transportation sector also found production requires more water per barrel than petroleum and may cost three times as much.

Algae store natural oils as a source of energy. Used as a fuel source, it's essentially carbon neutral because photosynthetic organisms survive by metabolizing CO2, a greenhouse gas. Developing algae as an alternative could offset climate concerns expressed this year by the international community. Sapphire's effort to make it commercially viable may be notable in terms of the interested generated in green crude but with just 23 million barrels expected by 2025, it falls short of a green revolution.

By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com

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  • Jörg Dürre on December 12 2013 said:
    The killer argument against any kind of biofuels is the devastatingly bad efficiency of photosynthesis (~1% chemically stored energy).
    In comparison photovoltaics, standard of the shelves modules come with 16% electric usable energy.
    Algae might be a very good input material for food use or other higher value products but I do not see any future just burning the product.

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