Sapphire Racks Up Another Win for Airline Algae

Two different airlines had algae biofuel test flights this month, and both turned to the well-funded Sapphire Energy for their needs. Japan Airlines took flight today on a plane partially powered by camelina, jatropha and a small percentage of algae-based biofuels, while Houston’s Continental Airlines (s CAL) took to the wild biofuel yonder earlier this month, using a blend of jatropha and algae.


San Diego-based Sapphire has some big-name backers on its side, including Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, ARCH Venture Partners and Venrock, and with more than $100 million in financing, is one of the most well-funded algae biofuel startups around. Other startups trying to get in on the algae-to-jet fuel game include Solazyme, Inventure Chemical Technology, Aquaflow Bionomic, and Algenol Biofuels.

But how does the green stuff compare with the biofuels that are already on the market? Well, besides sidestepping the whole food vs. fuel debate, Sapphire says its algae biofuel delivers anywhere from 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than cropland biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. Algae also uses less water than corn, and can grow on non-arable land.

And Sapphire touts that its algae biofuel is chemically identical to crude oil, making it compatible with anything on the road, or in the air, today, as well as with current refineries and pipelines. Ethanol can be corrosive, and is usually taken by truck or rail to terminals where it’s blended with regular gasoline.

Maybe Richard Branson should take a look. He got bashed for using very little biofuel in his Virgin Atlantic test flight last February. The Virgin flight also made the big no-no of using food-based feedstocks, with biofuel made from coconut oil and babassu nuts.