Bill Gates Invests in 3rd Generation Biofuel from Algae

29 September 2008

Bill Gates Invests in 3rd Generation Biofuel from Algae
Photo by Steve Jurvetson

Bill Gates, the world’s richest geek, has always had a penchant for high tech investments. He has put millions of dollars in a firm which claims it has a successful process to make petrol biofuel from algae.  Many companies are trying to find a way to do this:  by using algae, grown in vats, it is theoretically possible to make biofuel without the serious drawbacks of using up food-growing land, and needing to use fossil-fuels as an input, e.g. diesel powered combine harvesters.

San Diego-based Sapphire Energy said last year that it has successfully made its product, Green Crude, which yielded 91-octane petrol from algae. Sapphire Energy said recently that a second round of investment would bring the total amount it has raised to more than $100 million. Investors include Gates' investment firm Cascade Investment, as well as Arch Venture Partners, Wellcome Trust, and Venrock.

They claim that their product:
Is made directly from CO2 using photosynthesis

  • does not result in unsustainable biodiesel or ethanol
  • enhance, or replace petroleum-based products
  • does not require food crops or agricultural land
  • is carbon neutral and renewable
  • supports domestic energy independence

Algae-based biofuel would have other possibilities besides transport fuel, for example as a cheap chemical feedstock, or the basis for pharmaceutical products.  This is why there is a high level of competition in this field.

Sapphire Energy’s process can use algae to yield a range of fuels, including petrol, jet fuel, and diesel. The financial backing will help the company expand its operations with a target of producing 10,000 barrels per day of fuel from algae and help it operate at commercial scale within three to five years.
It has a test facility in New Mexico, where the experiments are carried out. Sapphire Energy has not provided many details publicly about its technology except to say that it doesn't need fresh water to grow the algae and that it has assembled a team with expertise in cell biology, plant genomics, and algal production.

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