Making ‘completely replaceable fuel’
On 100 acres in southern Luna County, Bryn Davis and his colleagues are trying to start a revolution. The revolution is based on one of the humblest living things on the planet – algae. If everything goes as planned, however, Sapphire will be able to provide fuel from the algae for planes, trains and automobiles.
“We shy away from the term ‘biofuel,’” Davis said to the crowd assembled at the Tuesday, June 5, Business in the Borderplex luncheon presented by the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance. “We’re making completely replaceable fuel.”
They’re also making money for the region.
“We try to buy locally when we can,” Davis said. Sapphire’s billing department did an exercise with its vendor listings, matching bills paid to ZIP codes. Turned out a lot of them were going to the southern New Mexico region. “Well over $14 million in checks went to ZIPcodes with an 88-whatever in them,” Davis said.
Sapphire is also bringing jobs.
Davis said in a recent report he gave to the Las Cruces City Council on Sapphire’s economic impact on the city, the company produced 373 jobs in 2011. That’s up from 77 jobs in 2008.
The 100 acres, 8 miles west of Columbus, are rows of high-tech ponds growing the algae. This is Phase I of the project. Sapphire has 900 more acres on which it can expand.
Sapphire was founded in May 2007, but it was not the first to grow algae for fuel in New Mexico.
A now-defunct project was begun in Roswell in the 1970s.
One reason scientists and entrepreneurs are trying to create fuel from algae is its efficiency. “Algae are the most efficient converters of sunlight into hydrocarbons,” Davis said. “It’s 10 times more efficient than corn.”
It also uses less space.
Davis pointed to a visual on a PowerPoint screen that showed the amount of land required for various crops to make fuel.
“It’s a very small footprint,” Davis said. “From an area roughly the size of White Sands National Monument you can make as much fuel from algae as it would take with 90 million acres of corn.”
While “green crude” is more efficient in the production phase – its production actually reduces a carbon footprint, Davis said – the end product is identical to traditional fossil fuels.
“All fuel we have has come from algae – we’re just trying to cut a couple of million years out of the process,” Davis said. Sapphire is essentially “high-tech farmers,” Davis said.