Cambridge-based Joule Biotechnologies has come out of the dark today to announce a radical technology designed to mimic photosynthesis using bio-engineered micro-organisms to make ethanol fuel from carbon dioxide and sunlight.
Because of the abundance of these raw materials, Joule Biotechnologies should be able to make ethanol economically, sustainably and at stable prices.
Prices would be competitive with fossil fuels at $50 a barrel.
By using materials with an unlimited supply, it solves most of the sustainability issues associated with making ethanol with corn, switch grass, or other plant materials. Joule’s system does not require raw materials in short supply like fresh water and agricultural land like traditional biofuel production. Quite the opposite.
An ideal “farm” might be a coal-powered electricity plant in Texas that’s belching out carbon dioxide in the sunshine.
Each acre can produce more than 20,000 gallons of ethanol or hydrocarbons annually; far more than recent algae estimates, which Sims says come in around 2,000 gallons an acre. It can make transportation fuels at $50 per barrel or less; rivaling current gas prices, but without the pollution or greenhouse gases of fossil fuel.
Here’s how it works:
Sims described the function of the firm’s main device, called the SolarConverter, that facilitates the production process. The converter contains a mixture of brackish water, nutrients, and genetically engineered organisms. Carbon dioxide gas is fed into the mixture, and the device is designed to expose the organisms in the mixture to the sun.
The organisms are photosynthetic, meaning that they absorb light energy and carbon dioxide to form compounds. Joule has engineered its organisms to secrete ethanol and hydrocarbons and chemicals.
Sims declined to say which specific photosynthetic organisms his firm engineers for its process, but he did reveal that the organisms are not algae, which many companies are using to develop methods of producing renewable fuels.
SolarConverters would be assembled and integrated into modules of 10 that can be installed like solar panels.
This would provide flexibility to alter the number of converters used at a specific site depending on the availability of space for them and the desired level of system output, he says. Also, the company plans to employ the same basic solar conversion process it uses to produce ethanol to make hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals.
David Berry of Flagship Ventures, the investor says that the requirements were to develop a fuel production process that:
1. wouldn’t cost a fortune figuring out if it could be done at an industrial scale. (so far; under $50 Million)
2. used a scalable process with modular capabilities (could be done on large and small scales with the same results, thus eliminating the scale-up risks that often come with demonstrating clean energy methods at industrial levels for the first time.)
3. did not rely on sugar-based feedstocks like traditional biofuels.
Cambridge-based Joule Biotechnologies is not the only MIT research start-up working in this area.
Photosynthetic biomimicry to make solar fuel is a developing story around MIT. That is because research advances there in synthetic biology have generated several other startups trying to develop an efficient way of converting solar energy directly into fuel.
Joule Biotechnologies was formed in 2007, and now that the technique has been demonstrated in the lab, the Cambridge, MA-based company plans to demonstrate that it has a proven process and technology.
CEO Bill Sims says it can be put to work on a commercial scale next year.
He expects the firm to have a commercial-scale plant producing ethanol by the end of 2011 or early 2012.
Image from Joule Biotechnologies