Organism Makes Diesel Fuel With Sun, Water, CO2
Biotechnology company Joule Unlimited said on Monday that it can produce the fuel that runs some cars and jet engines using its genetically-engineered organism that secretes diesel fuel or ethanol wherever it finds sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based company said it can control the organism to produce the renewable fuels on demand and at unprecedented rates, and can do so at costs comparable to the lowest-cost fossil fuels.
The breakthrough could mean “energy independence,” the company said.
“We make some lofty claims, all of which we believe, all which we’ve validated, all of which we’ve shown to investors,” Joule CEO Bill Sims told the Associated Press (AP).
“If we’re half right, this revolutionizes the world’s largest industry, which is the oil and gas industry,” he said.
“And if we’re right, there’s no reason why this technology can’t change the world.”
However, the task is not yet complete, and not everyone is convinced the company can deliver on their claims.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) scientist Philip Pienkos called Joule’s technology “exciting”, but noted that it is not yet proven. Indeed, the efficiency could be undercut by difficulties in just collecting the fuel their organism is producing, he told AP.
Timothy Donohue, director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, said that Joule has yet to demonstrate the technology works on a broad scale.
Perhaps it can work, but “the four letter word that’s the biggest stumbling block is whether it ‘will’ work,” Donohue told AP.
“There are really good ideas that fail during scale up.”
Sims acknowledged “there’s always skeptics for breakthrough technologies.”
“And they can ride home on their horse and use their abacus to calculate their checkbook balance,” he said.
Founded in 2007, Joule has roughly doubled its employees during the past year, closed a $30 million second round of private funding in April and added former White House chief of staff John Podesta to its board of directors.
After working in “stealth mode” for a couple years, Joule recently began opening up about its success, including obtaining a patent last year for its production of diesel molecules from its cyanobacterium.
This month, the company released a peer-reviewed paper it says supports its claims.
Although efforts to make fuel from solar energy has been underway for decades, Joule said they have eliminated the middleman that makes large scale biofuel production so expensive.
That middleman in this case is the biomass, such as the tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated and refined before being used, the AP reported.
However, Joule says its organisms secrete a completed product identical to ethanol and the components of diesel fuel, which then live on to keep producing at spectacular rates.
For instance, Joule says its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre each year — four times more than the most efficient algal process for producing fuel ““ at a cost of just $30 a barrel.
Critical for Joule is the cyanobacterium it selected, which is found everywhere and is less complex than algae, making it easier to genetically manipulate, said Joule’s top scientist Dan Robertson.
The organisms are created such that they take in sunlight and carbon dioxide, then produce and secrete ethanol or hydrocarbons “” the basis of fuels such as diesel “” as a byproduct of photosynthesis.
Joule envisions building facilities near power plants and consuming their waste carbon dioxide, such that their cyanobacteria can simultaneously reduce CO2 emissions.
Joule said the “bioreactors” that house the cyanobacterium are modular, allowing the company to build arrays at facilities large or small according to the amount of available space.
The thin, grooved, panels are designed for maximum light absorption and efficient collection of the fuel the bacteria secrete.
However, Pienkos said recovering the fuel is where Joule could run into problems. Using information contained in Joule’s recent report, he calculated that the company’s technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water, producing a type of “sheen.”
Joule is facing complicated “engineering issues”, he said, in order to recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently.
“I think they’re trading one set of problems for another,” said Pienkos, who also serves as principal investigator on a government-funded project with Algenol, a Joule rival that makes ethanol and is one of the few companies that also bypass biomass.
Success or failure for Joule will arrive soon enough, as the company plans to break ground on a 10-acre demonstration facility later this year. According to Sims, the facility could be commercially operational in less than two years.
Joule’s peer-reviewed article, entitled “A New Dawn for Industrial Photosynthesis”, was published in the journal Photosynthesis Research. The report, which examines the company’s advances in solar capture and conversion, direct product synthesis and continuous product secretion, can be viewed online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j1414q2u5w25h788/fulltext.html.
On the Net: