Joule patents fuel made from water, sunlight, CO2

Biotech start-up receives a patent for a process where genetically engineered cyanobacteria make hydrocarbons directly during growth.

The mystery bug--a type of bacteria--behind intriguing biofuel start-up Joule Unlimited was revealed with the publication of a patent on Tuesday.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up said that it has received Patent No. 7,794,969 for an engineered form of cynobacteria, or blue-green algae, which grows in water and is capable of secreting biodiesel fuel.

The company asserts that it can make diesel fuel directly using only sunlight and waste carbon dioxide in glass bioreactors for as little as $30 a barrel.

A diagram of how a Joule facility would work with bioreactors growing micro-organisms with sunlight and CO2 in water. A separator removes the end product--liquid fuel or chemicals.
A diagram of how a Joule facility would work with bioreactors growing micro-organisms with sunlight and CO2 in water. A separator removes the end product--liquid fuel or chemicals.

Most biofuels processes take multiple steps to convert plant matter into sugars. Joule claims to be the first company to patent a single-step, continuous process that doesn't require a feedstock for fuel production. "Our vision since inception has been to overcome the limitations of biomass-based technologies, from feedstock costs and logistics to inefficient, energy-intensive processing," Joule CEO Bill Sims said in a statement.

According to its patent, Joule combines two enzymes with cyanobacteria to create an organism that can create hydrocarbons or chemicals. Other companies, such as LS9 and Amyris, also use genetically engineered microbes to make biofuels but they are designed to make sugars that can then be turned into fuels.

The company is now testing its system to make diesel and ethanol in Texas where sunlight and waste CO2 are fed into its bioreactors. The organisms grow, the fuel is harvested, and the organisms are then recirculated back into the growing solution. Its bioreactors control heat and light to optimize growth.

Joule plans to begin pilot production of diesel at the end of 2010 and open a commercial plant in 2012. Its pilot tests for ethanol production show it can be produced at a rate of 10,000 gallons per acre per year.

The patent awarded on Tuesday is the second the company has received, according to a company representative. The first one--No. 7,785,861--covers aspects of an engineered photosynthetic micro-organism for fuel production, the company said. Issued on August 31, the first patent went through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's fast-track program for green technologies .

 

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