Mar 10, 2010

Sneak-peek at “fuel from thin air”: Joule Biotechnologies and its “game-changing technology”

how it works
In Massachusetts, Joule Biotechnologies CEO Bill Sims, sitting atop one of the most discussed and least understood technologies in biofuels, visited with the Digest to shed some light and provide some timelines for future guidance on the development of Joule’s bio-based technology, which uses a microorganism to produce biofuel directly from CO2, water and sunlight.

The Joule technology

In the Joule technology, biomass is not used as an intermediate. Via a solar converter unit, the microorganism obtains carbon and oxygen by fixing atmospheric CO2 or utilizing direct fed waste CO2, and obtains hydrogen from water at a rate of two gallons of water consumption per gallon of fuel produced – however, brackish, non-potable water is sufficient.

What is a solar converter – think closed photobioreactor without the biomass. Like a bioreactor, there are microorganisms, water and a nutrient package (think nitrogen, for one). In this case, however, the purpose of the PBR is not to produce biomass as an intermediate which can be converted to fuel, but rather to directly produce fuel.

There are other microorganisms that produce a diesel molecule — for example, that is the path for Amyris and for another David Berry company, LS9. The difference here is that neither biomass nor sugars are required as feedstock, so it’s a biomass-independent route all the way through its process.

Ethanol, renewable diesel now, maybe jet fuel later

Sims confirmed that the company will initially target diesel with its as-yet publicly unidentified microorganism, although the company has the capability of producing renewable jet-A and JP-8 fuel in the future. “Gasoline is not in our development path,” Sims explained, although he confirmed that the company’s internal testing has yielded a dozen fuels and chemicals to date.

He confirmed that the company will be producing at small scale before the end of the year and will move to large scale by 2012. He described the yields from the developing technology as already “exceeding what cellulosic ethanol will ever be able to do”. Pricing is estimated at competitive with $40-$50 per barrel of oil.

Currently, the company is testing ethanol production and will move to production of hydrocarbons in the second half of the year — both will be produced at the company’s pilot facility in Leander, Texas. In 2011, the company will be looking to “start fresh” with a next-generation version of its solar converter, with a goal of using direct-fed waste CO2 and a 10-acre demonstration of the technology to simulate the conditions of a large scale deployment of Joule’s technology.

Commercialization timescale and metrics

By 2012, the company expects that it will be ready to start implementation of its first commercial-scale facility, with a size in the 500-5000 acre range. The technology, at that scale, will require a large-scale source of CO2, but Sims confirmed that Joule’s technology can utilize flue gas that has been scribed with “generally accepted” scrubbing technologies that have removed NOx and SOx, and will require 120 tons per acre of CO2 per year.

The company is currently looking at yields of up to 25,000 gallons per acre per year for ethanol and in the 15,000 gallon per acre range for diesel. Accordingly, we are looking at a production yield of 7.5 Mgy to 75 Mgy by 2012, if commercialization plans hold to their timelines and yields continue to increase towards goal as the company expands its technology. Currently, the company is producing at a 6,000 per acre per year rate.

Joule’s CEO and co-founder presenting at the 2010 ABL conference

Joule CEO Bill Sims — as well as company co-founder David Berry — will be among the presenters at the 2010 Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in Washington, DC, April 27-29 (which is now sold out, regrettably). The Digest expects to come back to the Joule story at that time with some further investigations of the economics of the system, including more detail production and capital costs.

For now, here are the top-line points:

Joule expects to be producing 75 Mgy of renewable diesel by 2012, and will not be using biomass as an intermediate, thereby bypassing the need to develop its technology using, or depending on, the availability of arable land or requiring feedstocks beyond the supply of CO2 and water. ... more

Joule Named Among 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World

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