Mass. company making diesel with
sun, water, CO2
Feb 06, 2011 - Jay Lindsay - Associated Press
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A Massachusetts biotechnology
company says it can produce the fuel that runs Jaguars
and jet engines using the same ingredients that make
Joule Unlimited has invented a genetically-engineered
organism that it says simply secretes diesel fuel or
ethanol wherever it finds sunlight, water and carbon
The Cambridge, Mass.-based company says it can manipulate
the organism to produce the renewable fuels on demand
at unprecedented rates, and can do it in facilities large
and small at costs comparable to the cheapest fossil
What can it mean? No less than "energy independence," Joule's
web site tells the world, even if the world's not quite
"We make some lofty claims, all of which we believe,
all which we've validated, all of which we've shown to
investors," said Joule chief executive Bill Sims.
"If we're half right, this revolutionizes the world's
largest industry, which is the oil and gas industry," he
said. "And if we're right, there's no reason why
this technology can't change the world."
The doing, though, isn't quite done, and there's skepticism
Joule can live up to its promises.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientist Philip
Pienkos said Joule's technology is exciting but unproven,
and their claims of efficiency are undercut by difficulties
they could have just collecting the fuel their organism
Timothy Donohue, director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy
Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
says Joule must demonstrate its technology on a broad
Perhaps it can work, but "the four letter word
that's the biggest stumbling block is whether it `will'
work," Donohue said. "There are really good
ideas that fail during scale up."
Sims said he knows "there's always skeptics for
"And they can ride home on their horse and use
their abacus to calculate their checkbook balance," he
Joule was founded in 2007. In the last year, it's roughly
doubled its employees to 70, closed a $30 million second
round of private funding in April and added John Podesta,
former White House chief of staff under President Bill
Clinton, to its board of directors.
The company worked in "stealth mode" for a
couple years before it recently began revealing more
about what it was doing, including with a patent last
year for its production of diesel molecules from its
cyanobacterium. This month, it released a peer-reviewed
paper it says backs its claims.
Work to create fuel from solar energy has been done
for decades, such as by making ethanol from corn or extracting
fuel from algae. But Joule says they've eliminated the
middleman that's makes producing biofuels on a large
scale so costly.
That middleman is the "biomass," such as the
untold tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested
and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated
and refined to be used. Joule says its organisms secrete
a completed product, already identical to ethanol and
the components of diesel fuel, then live on to keep producing
it at remarkable rates.
Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium
can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually,
over four times more than the most efficient algal process
for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a
A key for Joule is the cyanobacterium it chose, which
is found everywhere and is less complex than algae, so
it's easier to genetically manipulate, said biologist
Dan Robertson, Joule's top scientist.
The organisms are engineered to take in sunlight and
carbon dioxide, then produce and secrete ethanol or hydrocarbons — the
basis of various fuels, such as diesel — as a byproduct
The company envisions building facilities near power
plants and consuming their waste carbon dioxide, so their
cyanobacteria can reduce carbon emissions while they're
The flat, solar-panel style "bioreactors" that
house the cyanobacterium are modules, meaning they can
build arrays at facilities as large or small as land
allows, the company says. The thin, grooved panels are
designed for maximum light absorption, and also so Joule
can efficiently collect the fuel the bacteria secrete.
Recovering the fuel is where Joule could find significant
problems, said Pienkos, the NREL scientist, who is also
principal investigator on a Department of Energy-funded
project with Algenol, a Joule competitor that makes ethanol
and is one of the handful of companies that also bypass
Pienkos said his calculations, based on information
in Joule's recent paper, indicate that though they eliminate
biomass problems, their technology leaves relatively
small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of
water, producing a sort of "sheen." They may
not be dealing with biomass, but the company is facing
complicated "engineering issues" in order to
recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently, he said.
"I think they're trading one set of problems for
another," Pienkos said.
Success or failure for Joule comes soon enough. The
company plans to break ground on a 10-acre demonstration
facility this year, and Sims says they could be operating
commercially in less than two years.
Robertson talks wistfully about the day he'll hop into
the Ferrari he doesn't have, fill it with Joule fuel
and gun the engine in an undeniable demonstration of
the power and reality of Joule's ideas. Later, after
leading a visitor on a tour of the labs, Robertson comes
upon a poster of a sports car on an office wall, and
it reminds him of the success he's convinced is coming.
He motions to the picture.
"I wasn't kidding about the Ferrari," he says.