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Joule is cool, but not alone in quest for sunlight-to-fuel “game-changer”

Joule Unlimited has been on my radar for a little over a year now, but it has become the topic of much conversation — at least in Canada — after Globe and Mail columnist Neil Reynolds wrote about the innovative U.S. biotech company, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So what’s all the hype about? Reynolds pointed out that Joule, which is privately held, received a patent for a “proprietary organism” that produces liquid hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. “This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil,” wrote Reynolds, citing the company’s claim of being able to produce “fossil fuels on demand.” These organisms mimic photosynthesis, requiring only carbon dioxide, sunshine and water to produce crude. It has already produced ethanol at 10,000 U.S. gallons per acre and is aiming for 25,000 gallons per acre. It believes it can produce diesel fuel at 15,000 gallons per acres — eventually, at least. It received a patent for this process last September.

Reynolds made a small error in his piece. “The Joule technology requires no ‘feedstock,’ no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered microorganisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude,” he wrote. In fact, Joule is using genetically altered cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which is not unlike the organisms used by many algae-to-biofuel ventures out there.  The difference is that Joule doesn’t have to harvest and process the cyanobacteria. Instead, the organism refines and excretes the end fuel product for relatively easy collection, skpping many costly processes that have made many algae-to-biofuel approaches uneconomical. But even there, there are a number of companies taking a similar approach, including Algenol, Synthetic Genomics (Craig Venter’s venture) and BioCee. And let’s keep in mind that CO2, itself, is a feedstock. It’s not like Joule’s cyanobacteria can pull ambient CO2 out of the air. It has to be pumped into its system, meaning some kind of upstream delivery infrastructure is required. Also, Joule likes to distinguish its SolarConverter system from a photobioreactor, but in general terms it’s still a photobioreactor.

Still, what Joule and its rivals are trying to do is fascinating, and the fact that there are several companies taking this approach is encouraging. Algenol, in my opinion, is ahead of Joule in many regards. The company’s genetically enhanced cyanobacteria is focused on ethanol production for now, but it also has its eyes on biobutanol, which has much higher energy density than ethanol. Algenol’s claims of per-acre ethanol production are more modest — and realistic — than those coming from Joule. Algenol says it can achieve 6,000 gallons per acre today and is aiming for 10,000 gallons per acre, while Joule is aiming for 25,000 gallons per acre (both still dramatically higher than what corn or cellulosic ethanol offer). I’m naturally skeptical Joule can achieve this, and the company admits that it has a long way to go from the lab to large-scale production.

Joule has raised more than $30 million but less than $50 million so far, and in 2010 supposedly entered pilot stage with its approach to ethanol production. It has no known industrial partnerships or strategic investors, and if it does it’s not talking about them. It has a board of advisors, but all of them are academics — there doesn’t appear to be much depth of industry experience. Algenol, by contrast, has raised more than $100 million (not through VCs) and it has struck impressive partnerships with Dow Chemical, Linde, Valero and Abengoa. (Disclosure: there is a chapter on Algenol in my new book Mad Like Tesla, which is out in September). I point out all of this not to diminish what Joule is trying to do, but to emphasize that Joule is not alone, and not necessarily ahead, in the quest to turn microbes into low-cost producers of fossil-fuel alternatives. Indeed, Algenol also makes the claim that its process is economical with oil as low as $30 per barrel.

If you want a good sense of what Algenol is working on these days, check out this very detailed Environmental Assessment performed by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is helping fund an Algenol pilot production plant being built this year beside the company’s new headquarters in Fort Myers, Florida. The good news, as Joule says on its Web site, is that “The Race Is On” to achieve energy independence by directly converting sunlight into an unlimited supply of renewable fuel.

BTW: Joule announced this month that it had appointed former White House chief of staff John Podesta to its board of directors. Podesta was most recently co-chair of Obama’s transition team. Certainly, this appointment adds a healthy dose of credibility to what Joule is working on.

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