No small plans for biotech company banking on sun, water to produce fuel

As “green” technology expands, biotechnology companies will continue to make promising announcements about advancements in energy and conservation. How about a biotechnology proclamation that essentially says a way to realize “energy independence” is in the offing?

Joule Unlimited, out of Cambridge, Mass., was the topic of recent reports after the company announced it was able to produce fuel that can run jet engines through the invention of a genetically engineered organism. Joule Unlimited says this organism secretes diesel fuel or ethanol whenever it is exposed to sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Best of all, the company claims it can use the organism to produce renewable fuels on demand at unprecedented rates and in small or large facilities at a cost similar to those creating the cheapest fossil fuels.

Joule’s website uses the catchphrase “energy independence” and does it with confidence, based on the belief that this discovery can at some point revolutionize energy and eliminate the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Experts in the renewable energy research world are understandably skeptical about Joule’s discovery and proclamation, claiming it is an exciting process but it is unproven and is likely to encounter problems in collecting the fuel that the organism is creating.

Trying to create fuel from solar energy is nothing new to the energy research industry, as it has been going on for decades. Joule executives believe they will make more progress than others because they have eliminated the need for tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that must still be treated and refined.

Joule operates with what it is called a cyanobacterium, which has been patented for producing diesel molecules. The cyanobacterium, sometimes called blue-green algae, can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre annually, more than four times the most efficient algal process for making fuel – at a cost they estimate at $30 a barrel.
The cyanobacterium is found virtually everywhere and is less complex than algae, which makes Joule researchers believe it will be easier to genetically manipulate. The organisms are engineered to take in sunlight and carbon dioxide, then produce and secrete ethanol or hydrocarbons as a byproduct of photosynthesis.

The company reports that it envisions building facilities near power plants and feeding waste carbon dioxide to its cyanobacteria so it can reduce carbon emissions at the same time. Flat, solar-panel style module “bioreactors” house the cyanobacterium, which means the company can build large or small production facilities.

While detractors say the major problem will be collection of the fuel, Joule Unlimited is forging forward with a 10-acre demonstration facility in Cambridge in hopes that it will be operating commercially in less than two years.


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