Potential Microbial and Algae Biofuel Breakthroughs

Solar farming: A photobioreactor houses photosynthetic microorganisms that use the energy in sunlight to make fuel and other chemicals from carbon dioxide and water. Credit: Joule Biotechnologies

Joule unveiled its revolutionary Helioculture system for producing SolarFuel™ energy products that will dramatically redefine how the world’s energy needs are met.

The modular SolarConverter design is engineered to meet demand on a global scale while requiring just a fraction of the land needed for biomass-based approaches. It can be easily customized depending on land size, CO2 availability and desired output. The functionality is proven and can readily scale from smaller operations with limited land to extensive commercial plants. Additional benefits enabled by the system include:

Multiple Product Lines—The same conversion technology and modular system used to produce SolarFuel liquid energy will also enable the production of SolarChemical™ products, several of which have already been demonstrated at laboratory scale.

Optimal Storage of Solar Power—Because Joule harnesses the sun to produce energy in the form of liquid fuel, it overcomes a major obstacle to the broad-based use of solar power, namely storage. SolarFuel liquid energy has up to 100 times the energy storage density of conventional batteries, and can be very efficiently stored and transported with no degradation of power.

MIT Technology Review has details.

A startup based in Cambridge, MA–Joule Biotechnologies–today revealed details of a process that it says 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. The company also claims that the fuel can be sold for prices competitive with fossil fuels.

Joule Biotechnologies grows genetically engineered microorganisms in specially designed photobioreactors. The microorganisms 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.

If the new process, which has been demonstrated in the laboratory, works as well on a large scale as Joule Biotechnologies expects, it would be a marked change for the biofuel industry.

The company plans to build a pilot-scale plant in the southwestern U.S. early next year, and it expects to produce ethanol on a commercial scale by the end of 2010. Large-scale demonstration of hydrocarbon-fuels production would follow in 2011.

So far, the company has raised “substantially less than $50 million,” Sims says, from Flagship Ventures and other investors, including company employees. The firm is about to start a new round of financing to scale up the technology.

Algae-based biofuels come closest to Joule’s technology, with potential yields of 2,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre; yet even so, the new process would represent an order of magnitude improvement. What’s more, while algae fuels have been cost far more than fossil fuels, the company claims that the process will be competitive with crude oil at $50 a barrel.

2. Synthetic Genomics, which recently announced a research partnership with ExxonMobil, has developed organisms that excrete fuel.

From MIT Technology Review : ExxonMobil announced a commitment to invest $300 million over five to six years in Synthetic Genomics, which Venter founded and now leads as CEO, and to spend an additional $300 million on a complementary internal algae program.

By the barrel, algae fuel provides three to four units of energy for every unit used to make it–a ratio that approaches petroleum’s 5-to-1 level of efficiency. The ratio for making ethanol from corn is a mere 1.2 to 1, according to some studies. Even making ethanol from cellulosic plants like switchgrass, researchers can achieve only a 2.5 to 1 ratio.

Venter’s company has been developing strains of bioengineered algae that ramp up the output of lipids and can in some cases produce hydrocarbons directly. However, Venter and Emil Jacobs, senior vice president for R&D at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, both emphasize that their companies will collaborate to investigate any viable option to push algae into the big time of energy sources.

3. Algenol, also has an organsim that excrete fuel, which recently announced a partnership with Dow.

Florida startup Algenol Biofuels says that it can efficiently produce commercial quantities of ethanol directly from algae without the need for fresh water or agricultural lands.

The companies recently announced plans to build and operate a demonstration plant on 24 acres of property at Dow’s sprawling Freeport, TX, manufacturing site. The plant will consist of 3,100 horizontal bioreactors, each about 5 feet wide and 50 feet long and capable of holding 4,000 liters.

Algenol has chosen to genetically enhance certain strains of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, to convert as much carbon dioxide as possible into ethanol using a process that doesn’t require harvesting to collect the fuel.

Woods is convinced that the process can be scaled up, and at a favorable cost of production. “It’s our expectation to produce ethanol for $1.25 a gallon,” he says, adding that the resulting ethanol gives back 5.5 times more energy than what it takes to produce it, making the renewable fuel competitive with cellulosic ethanol production. Woods notes that Algenol’s approach offers another bonus: “Every gallon of ethanol made creates one gallon of fresh water out of salt water.”

Algenol has also partnered with Mexico’s Sonora Fields, a subsidiary of Biofields, which is planning an $850 million project that aims to produce one billion gallons of ethanol annually.