The New “Green” Fuel: Algae

A new company called Sapphire Energy claims that it has developed a process for turning algae into crude oil, which can then be used to make fuel for automobiles or even jets. According to Sapphire CEO Jason Pyle, the green-colored crude oil is chemically equivalent to the fossil fuel version and could be processed into

A new company called Sapphire Energy claims that it has developed a process for turning algae into crude oil, which can then be used to make fuel for automobiles or even jets. According to Sapphire CEO Jason Pyle, the green-colored crude oil is chemically equivalent to the fossil fuel version and could be processed into fuel at any refinery. Production costs are equivalent to those of extracting the petroleum from oil sands or deep-water reserves. Pyle says that the company has already produced diesel, jet fuel and premium-grade gasoline from its crude.

In addition to algae and sunlight, the oil manufacturing process requires non-potable water and carbon dioxide. Because the process takes carbon dioxide out of the air, this could hypothetically balance out the carbon dioxide that would be emitted when the biofuel is burned. Pyle says that the new fuel could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum and enable consumption to continue at modern rates even as global oil supplies dwindle. Finally, in contrast with other biofuels, algae does not compete with food crops for land.

Don Anair, vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Sapphire’s project encouraging but refrained from giving it his endorsement until he could see how much greenhouse gas is emitted
throughout the entire production-combustion process.

In addition, Anair said, “Changing to this green crude could certainly have very good benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but it may not address some of the traditional tailpipe pollutants that are responsible for smog or ozone.”

According to Pyle, the algae fuel should pollute less than traditional gasoline because it does not contain either nitrogen or sulfur, which combine with oxygen to form common pollutants such as smog. But Anair noted that all fuels are exposed to nitrogen from the air during combustion.

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