Oil from algae | NevadaAppeal.com

Oil from algae

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer

Gasoline prices over $3 a gallon, dire warnings about greenhouse effects and increased pollution bringing about global warming are causing some folks to think more about energy alternatives.

Claude Sapp, principal for Infinifuel Biodiesel, is one of those folks, and now he is working to turn the oldest geothermal plant in Nevada into a biodiesel processing facility, where camelina oil seed and even algae is becoming diesel fuel.

Sapp said any plant that produces high oil yields can someday power a vehicle.

“Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil instead of petroleum,” he said. “We can get it from crambe, canola-type plants, oily seeds, even algae.”

He expects to have the first crop available in July, when a crop of camelina oil seed will be harvested and sent to a Lovelock plant to be crushed.

Eventually, he hopes to have the plant at 15 Julian Lane in Wabuska ready to grow its own algae, which he said can be harvested monthly.

“It (algae) starts out in a test tube and replicates itself,” he said. “We can grow it in our test ponds. It is about a thousand times more productive to grow algae than growing oil seed in the dirt. We have plenty of land to expand. We can grow acres more than our test ponds.”

Sapp said government researchers were initially skeptical about algae growing in Nevada’s desert climate because of the cool nights, but with the geothermal, Infinifuel can maintain a constant temperature.

“We can grow more algae and harvest it more often than we can dry crops,” he said.

That doesn’t mean dry crops don’t have a future with Infinifuel. Sapp said he has distributed oil seed to farmers from Eureka to Tonopah and hopes to have enough to crush by summer.

“We’ll have some at 4,000 feet and 6,000 feet, so we’ll get a good idea on what grows where,” he said. “Farmers from across the state have told me they can’t keep planting hay and alfalfa.”

The plant, which Sapp hopes puts out its first batch of biodiesel in July, is almost entirely self-contained, said Sapp, and fits in nicely with the ranching and farming environment around Wabuska and Yerington.

It begins with algae or oil seed being nourished by the sun, fertilizer and carbon dioxide, then crushed or pressed in a special facility to become vegetable oil and biomass. The biomass is added to alcohol, where it is mixed with the vegetable oil and heated with geothermal power in a biodiesel plant, where it becomes finished biodiesel.

Glycerine, a byproduct of geothermal processing, can be used in dust suppression and the biomass, left over from the crushing and pressing process, becomes fertilizer or fish or animal food.

The geothermal facility Sapp is using creates enough to power the biodiesel plant and even sell some electricity.

“The water at the geothermal plant comes out of the ground at about 220 degrees,” Sapp said. “The plant makes electricity, with any excess sold back to Sierra Pacific, so it is all self-contained. We’re trying not to use any petroleum products at all.”

The plant used to produce ethanol, back in the 1980s, Sapp said.

“They tried to do corn ethanol,” he said. “But when gas got cheap again, they abandoned it.”

He doesn’t expect that to happen again.

“We got all the cheap stuff (crude oil),” he said. “All what’s left is the stuff that’s hard to get to. There could be hundreds of years of it, but it won’t be easy or cheap.”

Sapp gave a tour of his facility last month to researchers from Desert Research Institute and engineers from Summit Engineering, hoping to partner with each in the future to improve his operation.

“DRI is the research powerhouse in the state and Summit is the engineering and building powerhouse in the state,” he said.

Del Fortner, energy and mineral manager for Summit, was impressed with the concept.

“The whole thing about renewable energy is it is so compatible with other things around it, like agriculture,” he said, pointing to cows grazing nearby. “They’re putting a dairy across the street and he can get fertilizer from local ranchers.”

Kent Hoekman of DRI said the institute is interested in all types of energy research.

“Making fuels from plants and the environmental impact of making geothermal and biodiesel we find interesting,” he said.

Sapp said he has expansion facilities planned in Hazen and Valmy, near Winnemucca and expects to grow thousands of acres of algae and oil seed.

“Valmy for sure,” he said. “We have already secured land near the power plant to grow algae and oil seed.”

He also doesn’t plan to limit himself to Nevada, having picked up additional investors and land in North Carolina as well.

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at kwoodmansee@nevadaappeal.com or 882-2111 ext. 351.