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Joule to make diesel at solar fuels plant

Start-up gets $30 million to build test facility that will create diesel fuel from microbes fed a diet of sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Start-up Joule Unlimited plans to open a test facility later this year that will use micro-organisms, fed only sunlight and carbon dioxide, to make diesel fuel.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company, which changed its name from Joule Biotechnologies, said on Tuesday that it has secured $30 million to build the plant in Texas where it is already testing ethanol production. The money for this round came from existing funder Flagship Ventures as well as institutional and private investors.

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. Joule Unlimited

Joule is a biotechnology company that has genetically engineered a photosynthetic micro-organism, which it has yet to disclose, to excrete hydrocarbons. Unlike biofuels processes, the company's bioreactors don't grow biomass that's later converted--either by extracting oil from algae or using enzymes to make ethanol, for example--into a desired chemical. Instead, the micro-organisms grow in water, which is circulated through a closed vessel. The fuels are then separated from the solution.

Joule president and CEO Bill Sims calls its technology and "above-ground oil well" because it can make diesel, ethanol, or other chemicals. The process is designed to work with different types of water, including seawater, brackish water, or waste water.

The company's activities this year are focused on testing its process to make diesel and ethanol. Next summer, it plans to build a larger demonstration facility for diesel at its current location and then start building a commercial facility in 2012, with a goal of producing diesel in 2013.

"This is quite doable. The reason we were able to attract money was not just because the story is there. The people came in and looked at what we had and the potential outcome," said Sims. "At a minimum, it's transformational. It could be world-changing."

In the long term, the plan is to use flue gases from a coal or cement factory as a source of carbon dioxide. Water would come from underground saline aquifers, Sims said.

Sims said that Joule's technology is many times more productive than biomass processes, with the company's ethanol targeted at 25,000 gallons per acre per year and diesel at 15,000 gallons per acre per year. Its financial target is to make fuels at $30 per barrel.

Although the idea has promise and the company was able to gain further funding, Joule engineers still need to improve the performance of its micro-organism. Specifically, they are tweaking micro-organisms to produce more of the desired product, Sims said.

There is also business risk. Although the fuel Joule plans to make is compatible with diesel engines, there will likely be resistance from incumbent providers because the process is such a break from existing practices, Flagship Ventures CEO Noubar Afeyan told Technology Review magazine.

"The acceptance in the industry for such a dramatic non fossil fuel replacement will take some years," Afeyan said. He projected that over the next five years, there will be dedicated diesel facilities done at "the enterprise level." Over the next five or 10 years, he expects there to be broader use because the process is not limited by land.