It sounds too good to be true: Technology that converts CO2 and sunlight directly into liquid biofuel, all using a method that requires minimal non-agricultural land and no fresh water. Yet that’s exactly what Joule Biotechnologies, a company that emerged from stealth mode today, claims it can do
In a break from other biofuel companies, Joule’s process doesn’t use a biomass feedstock like algae or plants. Instead, Joule grows engineered microbes using sunlight and CO2 in a “SolarConverter” system full of brackish water to produce what it calls “SolarFuel”–biofuel or commercial chemicals. The process is apparently so effective that it can produce ethanol and other hydrocarbon fuels for under $50 a barrel at a rate of 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year.
According to Bill Sims, the President and CEO of Joule, the SolarConverter process isn’t just an idea hatched in a lab last month. “We have been at this for nearly 2 years. We’ve proven the process in the lab and have a lab-scale facility running outside. We expect to have a pilot plant in 2010, he explained. “From there, I think we can move to commercial facilities as early as 2011 or 2012.”
So far, Joule has raised less than $50 million from Flagship Ventures and other investors. The company has also applied for a $10 million research and construction grant. Whether Joule’s technology can successfully be scaled up remains to be seen, but if it can, the company could overpower biofuel competitors like Amyris, Mascoma, LS9, and Sapphire Energy.