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Will Alternative Fuel Maker Joule Help Save the Planet or ......?

Joule, the Massachusetts based company founded in 2007, had its solar platform for renewable fuel production included among the MIT Technology Review’s 2010 TR10, an annual list of the world’s ten most important emerging technologies. The distinction follows Joule’s selection to the 2010 TR50 in February, which recognized the world’s 50 most innovative companies. Alongside Google, Joule was one of only two companies to achieve both honors.  This is quite impressive company they are in.  They claim that their technology can, at full-scale production, generate billions of gallons of renewable diesel in a highly-efficient process that conserves natural resources and consumes waste CO2.  This sounds exciting but when you get into the details of the technology, I get a nagging memory of a Michael Crichton story of genetic engineering gone horribly wrong. This technology could literally change the world, we hope for the better. But with the technical problems that are being experienced capping an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, should we not be asking what the ramifications of an industrial accident involving proprietary genetically engineered organisms would be?  Judge for yourself,  here is how the technology works:

Joule is applying advanced genome engineering to develop a library of proprietary organisms, each one optimized for productivity according to the desired end product. Because the organisms are engineered to directly synthesize and secrete fuels, they will avoid costly steps such as large-scale biomass production and collection or other downstream refinement. The technology has already been proven with the direct conversion of CO2 to liquid hydrocarbons and ethanol, avoiding the economic and environmental burden of multi-step, petroleum- or biomass-dependent methods.

Joule incorporates process, materials, photonic and thermal engineering to make their Helioculture™ platform commercial-ready. Unlike any other closed system approach, their modular SolarConverter™ system is designed for direct fuel production in a single-step, continuous process. It achieves high net energy gains while managing the photon capture, CO2 delivery and mixing, thermal management, product synthesis and initial separation in an efficient, direct-to-end-product™ process, minimizing the steps to market. The system’s interconnected assemblies are designed for ease of installation, making it scalable and customizable to any desired output levels based on land and CO2 availability.

Joule’s unique combination of genome and process engineering has enabled a technology platform that is capable of making multiple end products, including liquid hydrocarbons that are fungible with existing diesel fuel and can also be refined to make renewable jet fuel and gasoline. Their products will include ultra clean diesel, ethanol and commodity chemicals, directly targeting multi-billion dollar opportunities in the oil, chemical, consumer and agricultural industries.

Joule’s production process avoids the depletion of precious natural resources, with no dependency on agricultural land, crops or fresh water. At the same time, an independently-conducted lifecycle analysis shows that, through our intake of waste CO2, they have the potential to reduce harmful carbon emissions on a large scale – up to 90% in some instances.

Joule will efficiently capture sunlight to produce energy in liquid form, enabling tremendous scale, storage and transport of energy without the power degradation that limits storage of electricity. This advantage, combined with their direct, continuous process and use of waste CO2 as a sole feedstock, creates the potential to deliver virtually unlimited quantities of fuel. They have targeted commercial delivery of up to 15,000 gallons of diesel and 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year at full-scale production. Furthermore, the modular design of their SolarConverter system makes it readily extensible from smaller industrial operations to large-scale commerical plants, minimizing scale-up risks.

Avoiding the use of raw material feedstocks dramatically simplifies Joule’s production process, while also removing a costly component that can be subject to significant fluctuations in price and availability. In addition, the process has the capability of achieving up to 50X the efficiencies of biofuel production, with a fraction of the land use.

The efficienices of Joule’s production system, which requires fewer resources and less processing than both petroleum- and biomass-derived fuels, will allow Joule to meet or beat the costs of fossil fuels. They expect to deliver diesel for as little as $30 per barrel equivalent.

Joule has just closed a $30 million dollar funding round and their pilot operations are currently underway, with commercial development to begin in 2012.  We will keep our eye on this company for the future.

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