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Biofuels Joule Biotechnologies has moved closer to constructing a pilot plant for producing ethanol and diesel from sunlight

Published on February 15th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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One Giant Step Closer to Fuel-from-Sunlight by Joule Biotechnologies

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February 15th, 2010 by
 
Joule Biotechnologies has moved closer to constructing a pilot plant for producing ethanol and diesel from sunlightJoule Biotechnologies, Inc. has just announced that a lease agreement has been signed for a new facility in Leander, Texas, which will serve as a pilot plant to develop the company’s solar powered system for producing ethanol and other biofuels.  The energy efficient process is based on photosynthetic microorganisms and it operates without the use of conventional biomass or algae biofuel processes.

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CleanTechnica and Gas 2.0 have been eagerly following Joule’s progress, and the company has already produced ethanol and diesel at a lab scale rate.  It plans to start ethanol production this year at the pilot plant, with diesel to follow early next year.  Once operating at full scale, the facility has  the potential to deliver at the rate of 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre yearly, and 15,000 gallons of diesel.  That could be the tip of the iceberg, because the same process can also yield a variety of high-value chemicals in addition to biofuels.

Biofuel from Sunlight and Microorganisms

Joule prefers to call its system “solar fuel,” and rightfully so.  The heart of the process is the company’s proprietary SolarConverter, which contains photosynthetic organisms in a bath of brackish water and nutrients, with carbon dioxide fed in.  While the concept is similar to producing algae biofuel, there are several significant twists.  The organisms are not algae, they are bio-engineered proprietary organisms that produce and secrete fuel without the need for costly fermentation processes, extraction or refinement processes.  The system also skips the need to collect and transport large quantities of biomass.

Low Cost, Energy Efficient Solar Fuel

Joule calls its process Helioculture, and aside from its non-use of conventional biomass it has a number of environmental advantages over conventional biofuel production.  The use of a highly efficient solar powered process is number one.  Running a close second is the use of brackish water rather than potable water (or having to power water filtration equipment).  The system is also designed to take in waste carbon dioxide, which would add it to the growing list of carbon-capturing opportunities.  As a carbon capturing operation, Helioculture can operate on a large scale, but the SolarConverter modules are also designed to custom fit facilities of any size.

Texas Leading Stampede Away from Fossil Fuels

Big oil may be in for a rough ride if the Leander facility delivers on its promises, because Joule estimates it can produce ethanol at an energy equivalency of $50 per barrel and diesel at $40 per barrel.   It seems that Texas is to play host to one of life’s little ironies, as the state’s signature industry is rapidly being elbowed aside by alternative energy including the world’s largest wind farm, along with the growing recognition that Texas has the top solar energy potential in the U.S.

Image: Water drop by Irargerich on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Calvin

    Sounds like a great technology, if they can manage to scale it up from the lab tests. Thanks for featuring it!

    A comment on your last sentence: That Texas is a leader in wind energy (it has been for a long time) and has great solar potential – those two factors don’t really have any bearing on the health of its oil industry. Oil’s best quality is that it is easily stored and transported. It’s primary value is for use for transportation. Solar and wind power make electricity which is very valuable, but not easily stored, and not really used for transportation. Sure, there are some EVs and some plug-in hybrids, but it will probably be a long time before electricity pushes petroleum by the wayside in the transportation industry. Electricity generated from renewable energy really won’t displace our nation’s petroleum consumption for a long, long time to come.

    But, biofuels… as you say, do have the potential to make petroleum obsolete! Fingers crossed.

  • Calvin

    Sounds like a great technology, if they can manage to scale it up from the lab tests. Thanks for featuring it!

    A comment on your last sentence: That Texas is a leader in wind energy (it has been for a long time) and has great solar potential – those two factors don’t really have any bearing on the health of its oil industry. Oil’s best quality is that it is easily stored and transported. It’s primary value is for use for transportation. Solar and wind power make electricity which is very valuable, but not easily stored, and not really used for transportation. Sure, there are some EVs and some plug-in hybrids, but it will probably be a long time before electricity pushes petroleum by the wayside in the transportation industry. Electricity generated from renewable energy really won’t displace our nation’s petroleum consumption for a long, long time to come.

    But, biofuels… as you say, do have the potential to make petroleum obsolete! Fingers crossed.

  • Mason Hamilton

    No mention is made of the nutrient sources that will grow the algae for the system. All large scale biofuel systems require petro-chemical fertilizers and it is very questionable if they are either sustainable in the long term or if they are even carbon neutral or environmentally friendly in the short term.

    No mention is made of economic basis for their cost projections. Everyone (and most do) can make product cost projections and that is all they are projections. Without the audited basis of those projections – no credibility.

  • Mason Hamilton

    No mention is made of the nutrient sources that will grow the algae for the system. All large scale biofuel systems require petro-chemical fertilizers and it is very questionable if they are either sustainable in the long term or if they are even carbon neutral or environmentally friendly in the short term.

    No mention is made of economic basis for their cost projections. Everyone (and most do) can make product cost projections and that is all they are projections. Without the audited basis of those projections – no credibility.

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