Fast Company

Is Joule's Renewable "Liquid Energy" Far More Efficiently Produced Than Biofuel?


Joule Unlimited, a startup that produces solar fuels, says it can generate renewable diesel fuel at up to 15,000 gallons per acre annually. In comparison, biodiesel produced from algae fuel generates 3,000 gallons per acre.

Joule has made some lofty claims over the past few years. In 2009, the startup announced that it had figured out how to engineer microbes that require only sunlight and CO2 to produce ethanol, diesel, and other hydrocarbons. In 2010, the company revealed the patent for its engineered cyanobacteria, which can supposedly produce "Joule liquid energy," a biofuel-like ethanol or diesel replacement, in a single step.

Now Joule says it can far exceed the production capacity of any other biofuel manufacturer. An article recently published in the peer-reviewed Photosynthesis Research journal by Dan Robertson, Senior Vice President of Biological Sciences at Joule, analyzes Joule's capacity.

Among the article's claims: The conversion efficiency of Joule’s diesel, ethanol, and chemical production process is between five and 50 times greater than biomass-dependent processes, and the company can achieve a photosynthetic conversion efficiency of over 7% relative to the solar energy that hits the ground each year.

We will know soon enough whether or not Joule's claims can live up to the hype. The company says it will begin commercial production in 2012.

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  • Eugene Ferris

    It seems there's really no political will to support bio fuel production in Europe. And then I stumble onto this article. Is this the holy grail? Can this provide the option for the millions of wide awake folks out here that want a way to produce their very own fuel.
    I'm not at all formally trained or educated in chemistry. But I know that fuel is becoming a higher and higher portion of costs for all of us. Some time in the not too distant future (long before we "run out") hydrocarbon fuel from the middle east will be halted for a sustained period of time, perhaps years. Some countries (Ireland among others) have no hope of bidding effectively for what will be available. Coal is still widely burnt throughout Europe both to produce electricity, and heat homes, I burn it, it's the most reasonable (cost) option for where I live. Before a coal fire gets to full heat, it produces a lot of carbon, a shocking sight if you haven't seen it before, can the carbon be easily and effectively captured. A quick calculation of Diesel consumption of my car tells me it burns around 450 US Gallons per year. A calculation of the required size of a Joule solar production array to produce such a quantity is roughly 1320 sqft. Am I completely out to lunch? Am I taking a massive blind step from what I read to what I think might be a real answer?

  • Steve Van

    It's a fantastic idea. Now when you do the math, it all comes down to "earth". To use this process to fulfill the current yearly oil demand of the USA will take about 105,000 sq. kilometers of land area, which is slightly smaller than the state of Ohio. That's a LOT of earth covered in solar collectors. Not totally impractical, but just to make the plastics needed to set up an operation that big would probably take a couple decades of converting the oil produced into plastics (or draining the remaining underground oil). If the efficiency improves even by doubling to 14%, then it enters the realm of serious feasibility.

    This all assumes there is a CO2 source large enough and concentrated enough (needs about 100x atmosphere concentration for that level of production) nearby to feed it. Sitting next to a coal fired plant would make sense, sorta.

    And escaping little critters that go around turning things to oil is another concern.

  • Robb M

    Fantastic and exciting stuff! However, I hope that they are engineering the microbes to only be able to survive in their production environment. If these things can live in the natural environment and produce hydrocarbons (although probably at a much lower rate when not being fed carbon dioxide directly) that would be a nightmare if they were accidentally released and reproduced. It could be a never ending hydrocarbon spill. I'm sure they must have engineered some characteristics into the microbes where they can't survive in the outside world or they would have difficulty getting approval for commercial production (hopefully).