Joule Unlimited will demonstrate its novel production process within the next few weeks.
By Kevin Bullis
Why: Biofuels could be far cheaper if they weren't made from corn, sugarcane, and other forms of biomass.
Key innovation: Designed microbes that convert carbon dioxide and water directly into fuels.
Joule has engineered microbes that harness the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels. When housed in bioreactors in sunny areas and at full-scale production, the company says, these photosynthetic organisms can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel or 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. The process offers an advantage over making biofuels from corn or cellulose, because growing those materials requires large amounts of arable land. It’s also an improvement over using photosynthetic algae to make biofuel precursors, as some other companies do, because those chemicals must then be processed to make fuel.
The company says its process will be able to produce diesel fuel at a cost as low as $30 per barrel and ethanol at $50, which would make its fuels immediately competitive in the marketplace. Joule intends to commercially develop diesel fuel itself while partnering with other companies to commercialize ethanol and chemicals based on its technology.
Because Joule's process requires no arable land or fresh water and uses waste carbon dioxide as its only feedstock, its diesel fuels reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 90 percent when compared with petroleum-based diesel, making it a cleaner option than most other biofuels on the market or in development. The company has completed its first pilot plant, in Leander, Texas, and testing of diesel and ethanol production processes is under way. This year, the company will begin construction of its first production facility, a 10-acre demo plant that will eventually scale up to commercial production.
Challenges and Next Steps:
Going from lab-scale to commercial-scale bioreactors poses both engineering and biology challenges that Joule will have to overcome to keep its microbes producing fuel efficiently. The company will face competition from others developing microbes that excrete biofuels, including Synthetic Genomics, which has partnered with ExxonMobil; Algenol, which is working with Dow; and LS9, whose scientists have developed bacteria that metabolize cellulose and excrete diesel.