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Electric vehicles have grabbed the spotlight but the transportation sector is still going to need renewable fuel in liquid form, and plenty of it.


Renewable Fuel From Sunlight & Carbon Dioxide & Microbes & Algae &…

Electric vehicles have grabbed the spotlight but the transportation sector is still going to need renewable fuel in liquid form, and plenty of it.

We were just talking about BMW’s foray into renewable hydrogen when along comes the US company Joule to remind us that liquid fuel still has a place in the sustainable transportation landscape of the future. Despite the obvious advantage of electric vehicles, the fact is that many, many gasmobiles will be kicking around the planet for many years to come, and when you factor aviation, maritime, and logistics into the mix, you get many gallons of liquid fuel.

The good news is that all of that liquid fuel doesn’t have to be sourced from fossils, or, for that matter, from biomass. Joule has come up with a renewable fuel alternative to both fossil fuels and biomass, and it just so happens that this is a big week for liquid alt-fuel news so let’s dive in.

Joule renewable fuel from CO2 and sunlight

Joule & Renewable Fuel

Longtime CleanTechnica readers will probably recognize the name Joule. Our sister site first caught sight of Joule’s microbe-based renewable fuel process back in 2009, and the company crossed our radar the following year, when Joule announced that it was getting close to building a pilot plant in New Mexico to show off its solar-assisted, microbe-powered process for converting carbon dioxide into renewable fuels, primarily ethanol and diesel.

Fast forward to last month, and we find that Joule has closed in on $40 million worth of financing to expand its New Mexico plant. With a successful round of third-party testing under its belt, the company plans to convert about 150,000 tons of waste carbon dioxide per year into approximately 25 million gallons of ethanol.

In the latest development, today Joule announced that it has been issued an additional patent — US patent #9,034,629, to be precise — that covers its engineered cyanobacterium as well as its one step, continuous carbon dioxide-to-fuel sequence. The process yields “medium-chain” alkanes that are the molecular equivalent of precursors to fossil fuels including diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline.

Aside from its use of waste carbon dioxide (for example, from industrial facilities), another plus for the Joule process is its use of seawater, or for that matter any kind of brackish water.


Renewable Fuels — But Wait, There’s More

In the category of unconventional feedstocks for renewable fuel, algae probably ranks right up there. We’ve covered a number of different approaches to algae oil, and the latest one to pop up comes from Japan’s legendary Tohoku University.

Tohoku’s algae oil renewable fuel process involves producing either gasoline or jet fuel from squalene produced by microalgae. It’s actually part of a broader project that deploys algae in wastewater treatment systems, with an eye toward reducing the cost of treatment while generating a value-added product.

Here’s the rundown from Tohoku:

This new method uses a highly dispersed ruthenium catalyst supported on cerium oxide.
Squalane — which is easily obtained from squalene — reacts with hydrogen over this catalyst, producing smaller hydrocarbons. The produced hydrocarbons are composed of only branched alkanes with simple distribution and do not contain toxic aromatics. These molecules have high stability and low freezing points. These features are very different from the hydrocarbons obtained by conventional petroleum refinery.

I know, right? In case you’re wondering, the US Food and Drug Administration can tell you all about squalene. Hint: “Humans cannot live without squalene.”

BP & Renewable Fuel

So, that makes two interesting things in the world of renewable fuel so far this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

Those of you with long memories will get the Mamas and the Papas reference in the third thing we noticed, which comes out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) press room under the title “Leaving on a Biofueled Jet Plane.”

This one involves a pathway to resolving issues that are unique to jet biofuel. The research team includes LBNL and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a partnership spearheaded by the University of California-Berkeley called the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Also partnering in the effort, interestingly, is the global petroleum company BP. Yes, that BP.

The new process is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “Novel pathways for fuels and lubricants from biomass optimized using life-cycle greenhouse gas assessment.”

If you don’t have time to get all the juicy details from the horse’s mouth, the first thing you need to know is that it describes a way to produce renewable fuel from bagasse, the woody waste left over from sugarcane refining, using inexpensive catalysts. However, the second thing you need to know is that the process isn’t commercially viable, at least not yet.

However, the new process can yield high value lubricants for the automotive industry as well as jet fuel, providing sugar refineries with a diverse, value-added slate of products. If you consider all of the products as a whole, then you’ve got a sustainable platform for riding out market trends by shifting from one product to another.

LBNL also points out that the new process could yield drop-in diesel fuel and gasoline additives, and it could be applied to other woody, non-food biomass.

Summing all this up, we’ve been paying a lot of attention to battery and fuel cell technology for transportation, BMW’s excellent fuel cell adventure being the latest example. However, next-generation liquid, renewable fuels have been percolating on the back burner and they could give electricity a run for the money, especially in aviation and other specialty sectors.

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Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of Joule.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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