Joule Unlimited Claims to have engineered cyanobacterium that will produce biofuel equal to $30 barrel oil

Joule Unlimited is a US biotech company that claims to have a genetically engineered cyanobacterium that produces liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil

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Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has “proven the process,” has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year. Cornell University’s David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels.

Joule says its “solar converter” technology makes the manufacture of liquid fossil fuels 50 times as efficient as conventional biofuel production – and eliminates as much as 90 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions

Joule is pioneering the production of Liquid Fuel from the Sun™, surpassing today’s barriers to abundant, sustainable, cost-competitive supply.

More than a promising technology, Joule has a proven platform for renewable fuel production with greater efficiencies, scale and net energy yield than any known alternative to fossil fuels today.

Joule’s Helioculture™ platform combines breakthroughs in genome engineering, bioprocessing and hardware engineering to convert sunlight and waste CO2 directly into clean, fungible diesel fuel, bypassing the limitations of biofuel production. The novel SolarConverter® system is optimized to facilitate the entire continuous process, scaling to desired output levels with no dependence on raw material feedstocks, agricultural land, fresh water or crops.

At full-scale production the company projects delivery of up to 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually, at costs as low as $30 per barrel equivalent.

Joule’s pilot operations are currently underway, with commercial development to begin in 2012.

Answers to some frequently asked questions

Joule has developed and patented a highly-efficient process for converting CO2 directly to liquid hydrocarbons, requiring no biomass intermediates, processing, cracking or refining. By contrast, the process for making biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable, animal or algal oils and fats, is dependent on raw material feedstocks, costly harvesting and downstream processing. This results in higher production costs and higher market pricing that impede the use of biodiesel in place of affordable diesel fuel.

We estimate our costs for diesel to be as low as $30 per barrel equivalent. This is based on an industrial-scale plant of at least 1,000 acres, producing our commercial target of 15,000 gallons diesel/acre/year, and taking into account our total expected costs and existing, applicable credits.

The SolarConverter® system captures photonic energy from the sun, but it’s designed to serve an entirely novel purpose with economies of scale that far surpass photobioreactors. In the context of biofuels, photobioreactors are used to cultivate algae biomass, and productivity levels fall short of justifying capital costs. By contrast, Joule does not grow or use biomass to produce fuels. The SolarConverter system houses a circulating medium, comprised of proprietary organisms, brackish water and micro nutrients, and facilitates CO2 conversion to fuels and chemicals in a direct, continuous process. The SolarConverter panels are thin and modular, precisely designed for optimal use of light, ease of installation and scale. Joule’s anticipated productivity and capital cost per gallon make the SolarConverter system highly cost-effective.

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