Through the process of photosynthesis, one of Earth’s first organisms-algae-enabled the evolution of higher life forms by converting water and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen. Today, as fossil fuel sources are dwindling, researchers are looking to these simple progenitors as a key element in the survival of the human race.
Cynthia “C. J.” Warner (M.B.A. ’87) so believes that algae fuel can be a direct replacement for fossil fuel that she traded her nearly 30-year career in Big Oil to join a startup with a big vision: to change the world by developing a domestic, renewable source of energy that benefits the environment and hastens America’s energy independence.
“I feel strongly that we need to start working now to develop good and viable alternatives to crude, or face the inevitable crisis of major crude oil shortages,” says Warner from the San Diego headquarters of Sapphire Energy, Inc., a pioneer in the algae-as-biofuel movement. “The energy market is so large that alternative supplies need to be very well developed before they make much difference at all, and developing such significant volumes of truly viable substitutes takes time. That’s why I am now devoting all of my own attention to developing Green Crude-a sustainable, low-carbon, scalable substitute for crude oil,” she explains.
On the top 10 list in Biofuels Digest’s “The 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy for 2010–2011,” Sapphire Energy has been drawing attention since its founding in 2007. The following year, the company produced the world’s first batch of 91-octane fuel made from a renewable source. In a 2009 test run, Green Crude was used in a biofuel-traditional fuel blend to power a Continental Airlines 737 jet, yielding a 1.1 percent increase in fuel efficiency and a 60–80 percent emissions reduction over traditional jet fuel.
The United States Department of Energy first explored the use of algae as a fossil-fuel alternative after the oil crisis of the 1970s. During that period, Warner was a chemical engineering major at Vanderbilt University and completing a summer internship at the Amoco Research Center (where she met her husband, Dave [ME ’90]), not far from her hometown of Glen Ellyn, Ill. While industry was searching for new fuel options and processing techniques, society was becoming increasingly aware of its role as environmental steward.
“I was hooked and ready to become part of the energy solution.” —Cynthia “C. J.” Warner (M.B.A. ’87)
“Coupling these very meaningful challenges with the technological innovation required to address them made for an irresistible combination,” she says. “I was hooked and ready to become part of the energy solution.”
Warner began working at Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP LLC before moving on to the Amoco Corporation and British Petroleum, advancing in key operational leadership positions. Her industry achievements here and abroad include turning around BP’s U.S. refining business and developing long-term technology strategies for low-carbon and sustainable fuels. Warner was tapped for the role of Sapphire Energy president while she was living in London, serving as BP’s group vice president for global refining.
“C. J. brought world-class industrial discipline to Sapphire,” says Stephen Mayfield, a Sapphire Energy co-founder and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. “That does not mean rigid or unimaginative; in fact, it means just the opposite. It means an ability to integrate a variety of scientific disciplines including biology, engineering, chemistry, and economics into an efficient production process. A person who can do that is hard to find, but C. J. is that person.”
The company has a test and demonstration site in Las Cruces, N.M., where algae strains are developed, and is building an Integrated Algal Biorefinery near Columbus, N.M., projected to be complete in 2012. The refinery, which will have an output of 100 barrels of Green Crude per day, will show how algal oil can be produced on a continuous commercial scale and refined into Jet A and diesel fuels, and petroleum. By 2015, the company expects to be cost-competitive with $75-per-barrel crude.
“Replacing liquid transportation fuels is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing our nation today. It took us hundreds of years to move from wood to whale oil, and 100 more to shift from whale oil to crude oil,” says Warner. “Unfortunately, we don’t have another 100 years. To have a chance at offsetting the inevitable declines, our industry needs to have a set of solutions in place that are technically solved, ready-to-scale.”
Sapphire Energy: www.sapphireenergy.com
San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology: http://algae.ucsd.edu
Algal biofuel: www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2030137_2030135_2021648,00.html