Monday saw Joule Biotechnologies, based in Cambridge, Mass., introduce their new “Helioculture” process. Helioculture seems very similar to approaches that make biofuels using algae, although the company says it is not using algae. The company’s microorganisms are grown inside transparent reactors, where they’re circulated to ensure that they all get exposed to sunlight, and they are fed concentrated carbon dioxide–which can come from a power plant, for example–and other nutrients.
The company’s lab bioreactor is a flat panel with an area about the size of a sheet of plywood. While algae typically produce oils that have to be refined into fuels, Joule’s microorganisms produce fuel directly–either ethanol or hydrocarbons. And while oil is harvested from algae by collecting and processing the organisms, Joule’s organisms excrete the fuel continuously, which could make harvesting the fuel cheaper.
Joule says it has developed the new process called “Helioculture,” which captures sunlight in a “solar converter.” There, the light interacts with “highly engineered, photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion” of sunlight and CO2 – which Joule says it plans to get from traditional powerplants. This all creates “usable transportation fuels and chemicals.” Joule won’t say what the organisms are, except that they’re not algae.
Joule’s microorganisms are claimed to use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels (such as diesel or components of gasoline). The organisms excrete the fuel, which can then be collected using conventional chemical-separation technologies. That would quite a biological tuning exercise, choosing something so biologically common as ethanol seems sensible but going straight to conventional hydrocarbons with the same organism is an imaginative stretch. There has to be much more to this.
The probability they can get to functioning pilot scale is looking good. David Berry is young, MIT-trained and has also co-founded the biofuel company LS9. At Joule he’s making another run at the biology to fuel market. At Joule he’s keeping mum about the exact details on how his futuristic new technology will work.
Joule isn’t disclosing how much venture capital it’s raised, though Chief Executive Bill Sims allows that it’s “well less than $50 million.” Sims says that’s “plenty of capital” for the pilot stage and more will be required to build out Joule’s infrastructure. Joule could work out joint ventures with other companies, such as carbon-dioxide emitters, to help with cash and access to land. Joule can build out its solar structures on non-agricultural land, Sims notes, and even on places like building rooftops. Berry and Sims say the firm should be able to sell its fuel commercially by late 2011 or 2012 at a competitive price. Now that’s an aggressive timetable.
Youthful, Berry is a creative innovator: He has a Ph.D. from MIT’s Biological Engineering Division and also found time to earn a degree from Harvard Medical School. This is a very bright guy with the personality and temperment to get his ideas backed by some of the best. He co-founded LS9 in 2005 and helped it raise cash from Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, and to Flagship, where he is a partner. He has the connections, the communications skills and the technology. Berry says Joule combines “the best of solar” with the “best of biology.” In the best of investing environments, it could be a winner. But it almost sounds like a bet, given the current financial situation.
Monday saw a great deal of press about Joule. Based on Berry, the new organism, and the simple sounding implementation it looks very good. The details of the process suggest Joule new organism can make 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year. If this yield proves realistic, it could make it practical to replace all fossil fuels used for transportation with biofuels, if the concentrated CO2 can be found. The company also claims that the fuel can be sold for prices competitive with fossil fuels in the $50 a barrel range.
The new process, because of its high yields, could supply all of the US’s transportation fuel from an area the size of the Texas panhandle. “We think this is the first company that’s had a real solution to the concept of energy independence,” says Bill Sims, CEO and president of Joule Biotechnologies. “And it’s ready comparatively soon.”
The caveat is in the CO2. Joule seems to be counting on concentrated supplies, and there are only so many burners of coal, gas, biomass and oil to get close too. And they’re not all in the sunny Southwestern US. The big claims need some tempering. But it does illustrate again that CO2 is an important part of the fueling and energy production effort. Some smart innovators and creative types might make an industry in capturing and recycling CO2 on the cheap. Such technology also overcomes the solar storage issue, a major obstacle to the broad-based use of solar power. Fuel from solar processes hold liquid energy with up to 100 times the energy storage density of conventional batteries, and fuels can be very efficiently stored and transported with no degradation of the energy.
Lets hope the mass media response on Monday is well founded. Lots of these kinds of technologies struggle. ExxonMobil is coming into the field with loads of capital, world-class skills and a corporate culture of determination so the competition will get intense. The (bio) oil business is truly getting exciting.