TR10: Solar Fuel
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Oil farm: Arrays of bioreactors filled with Joule Biotechnologies’ microörganisms absorb sunlight. Supplied with carbon dioxide and nutrients, the organisms use photosynthesis to produce diesel. As they secrete it, the diesel fraction circulates to a separator that extracts the fuel and sends it to storage tanks.
Still, it’s a risky strategy, since it departs from established processes. Usually, a startup sets out determined to do something novel, says James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and a member of Joule’s scientific advisory board, “and it falls quickly back on trying to find something that works … an old thing that’s been well established.” Afeyan, however, has pushed the company to stay innovative. This summer, it will move beyond lab-scale tinkering; an outdoor pilot plant is currently under construction in Leander, TX.
As both a venture capitalist and a technologist–he received his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT in 1987–Afeyan is keenly aware of the challenges in demonstrating that a novel process can operate economically and make fuel in large volumes. To minimize the financial risks, he steered Joule toward a modular process that doesn’t require large and expensive demonstration plants.
“I’m not saying it’s easy or around the corner, because I’ve done this for a long time,” Afeyan says. But he does believe that Joule is onto something big: a renewable fuel that could compete with fossil fuels on both cost and scale. He says, “We have the elements of a potentially transformative technology.”