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Joule adds CO2 to sunlight to make fuel

Two-year-old Joule Biotechnologies introduces its synthetic biology technology that uses engineered microorganisms to make ethanol from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Start-up Joule Biotechnologies is sort of a mashup of the fuels, solar, and biotechnology industries.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company on Monday is disclosing its technology and business plans for making ethanol and other liquid fuels from genetically manipulated microorganisms that have been fed only sunlight and carbon dioxide.

In a break with biofuels companies, Joule says its HelioCulture system works without a biomass feedstock, such as algae or others plants. Instead, the company's engineered organisms grow through photosynthesis in a brackish water solution and directly excrete fuel or commercial chemicals.

Using sunlight, CO2, and genetically engineered microorganisms, Joule Biotechnologies says it can make liquid fuels or chemicals directly. Joule Biotechnologies

"We set out in sort of a 'blue sky' way and asked what would it take to build a fuel operation at full scale," explained David Berry, an investor at Flagship Ventures who co-founded Joule two years ago.

Berry is also a co-founder at LS9, another company using synthetic biology to create petroleum fuel replacements. What these types of biotech-oriented fuels companies are trying to do is to lower the cost of biofuels by streamlining the traditional process, which requires multiple steps involving pretreatment and enzymes.

"We recognized that what Joule was really harnessing in going directly from CO2 and sunlight to end product will give you incredibly high efficiency," Berry said, adding that biofuel costs are directly related to the cost of their feedstock.

Joule's process is built around its SolarConverter, which collects sunlight and feeds carbon dioxide into the solution. These modules can be strung together to make a larger facility. The solution can be recycled once the fuel is separated.

"Imagine an 8-by-4 (foot) flat sheet which inside contains the solution that flows through the process. The CO2 bubbles in and helps cause the mixing process that maximizes the exposure to the sun," explained Joule President and CEO Bill Sims.

Sims and Berry declined to say what kind of organism was engineered for Joule's system but said they are not typically used in this sort of commercial process.

Big claims
By eliminating the need for plant feedstocks and fresh water, Joule executives say that they overcome some of the biggest stumbling blocks to producing biofuels at large scale. The company estimates it can produce 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, which is far more than existing processes or others under development.

It claims that it can make its end product--ethanol or another hydrocarbon fuel--with an energy equivalent of less than $50 per barrel.

To get large amounts of carbon dioxide, the company anticipates setting up a facility near a large emitter, such as a power plant or cement factory. Flue gas from power plants would need to be "scrubbed" to remove some pollutants, such as mercury.

The company is now testing a prototype SolarConverter in New Mexico and plans to break ground on an ethanol-making facility in early 2010. It anticipates having an industrial-scale facility later in 2010.

Sims did not say how much money it raised except to say it was less than $50 million from Flagship Ventures and angel investors.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in cellulosic ethanol, there are still no commercial-scale operations that can turn woods, grasses, or agricultural residue into ethanol or hydrocarbon replacements.

"Our belief is that this is the world's first technology that offers a real solution to reach energy independence," Sims said.