20,000 Gallons of Renewable Fuel Per Acre: Joule Biotechnology Lifts Veil on Direct CO2 to Fuel Process

sun water photo

photo: Paul Sapiano via flickr

If there's a holy grail of liquid renewable fuels it might look something like this: High yield per acre, doesn't negatively impact water supplies, doesn't compete with food crops, and is cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Well, Cambridge, Mass.-based Joule Biotechnologies claims they have come up with just that and are only a few years away from commercial deployment: After two-years of below-the-radar work Joule has just announced they're ready to show off (if not exactly reveal) their process for using "propriety product specific organisms" that through photosynthesis can convert CO2 directly into either ethanol or a variety of hydrocarbon-based chemicals -- "solar diesel", a renewable fuel chemically identical to petroleum-based diesel, being one.

They're calling the procedure "Helioculture" and the fuel "SolarFuel", with the whole thing taking place in scaleable "SolarConverters".

Solar Converter Easily Customized, Scaled
Joule touts the advantage of the SolarConverter:

The modular SolarConverter design is engineered to meet demand on a global scale while requiring just a fraction of the land that’s needed for biomass-based approaches. It can be easily customized depending on land size, CO2 availability and desired output. The functionality is proven and can readily scale from smaller operations with limited land to extensive commercial plants.

solar converter photo

image: Joule Biotechnologies
It's NOT Algae, CEO Says
Though cagey about exactly what organism they are actually using, Joule President & CEO Bill Sims emphasizes that it's not algae, and to his knowledge one which no other company is currently working with -- hence the tight-lipped-ness.

Sims says that producing fuel using their process can theoretically yield up to 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre annually -- yes, a huge figure -- requiring no crop land nor fresh water to do so.

CO2 Sourced From Power Plants Considered
As for the source of the CO2, Sims says that co-location with fossil fuel-based power plants, as well as chemical or cement factories, are all possible.

In fact, in regards to Joule's first pilot plant, construction on which is hoped to begin sometime in 2010 at a location to be determined, co-location with a power plant is under consideration.

Commercial Deployment by 2012 Planned
Provided all goes as planned, Joule SVP of Finance David Johnson says that by the end of 2010 this pilot plant will be completed, with commercial-scale deployment expected in 2012 -- At which time the price per barrel of Joule's SolarFuel is expected to be at the "energy equivalent of less than $50 per barrel."

Sims adds that "we think this is the first technology that has been introduced that provides a viable path to energy independence."

Much Can Happen in Three Years...
If that all seems too good to be true we'll just have to wait and see how it pans out. It'll be at least another year before a pilot plant exists and two more after that before we'll really be able to determine if Joule's claims about yield per acre are accurate, and if another competitor in the field of synthetic biology (think Dow Chemical's recent partnership with Algenol Biofuels or Exxon's with Synthetic Genomics) beats them to the "chemically identical with gasoline and diesel" punch.

Jatropha Biofuel Yields in Indian Wastelands 80% Below Forecasts
Solazyme: Millions of Gallons of Algae Biodiesel Within 3 Years
TED Video: Craig Venter on Synthetic Life and Making Fuel from CO2

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