Joule, the developer of a direct, single-step, continuous process for the production of solar hydrocarbon fuels (earlier post), has extended its solar CO2 conversion platform to produce renewable gasoline- and jet fuel-range hydrocarbons.
Joule has engineered photosynthetic biocatalysts that convert waste CO2 into hydrocarbons through a patented, continuous process. Joule has been successfully scaling its process for making ethanol (Sunflow-E) while also developing long-chain hydrocarbons for diesel (Sunflow-D). With this latest development, Joule can now also directly produce medium-chain hydrocarbons which are substantial components of gasoline (Sunflow-G) and jet fuel (Sunflow-J).
The company’s Helioculture platform uses the engineered photosynthetic microorganisms as living catalysts to produce fuel, not as intermediates to produce lipids or sugars that are subsequently converted to fuel. The entire process takes place in a modular SolarConverter system, from photon capture to product creation and initial separation, with no requirement for arable land, fresh water or crops.
Each module of the SolarConverter system contains Joule’s engineered microorganisms, non-potable water and micronutrients. Waste CO2 is pumped in from an industrial emitter or pipeline; the CO2 keeps the microorganisms in motion, maximizing their exposure to sunlight to drive photosynthesis. The microorganisms consume the CO2 and continuously produce and secrete the fuel or chemical molecules into the medium.
The medium circulates through a separator that extracts the end product, which is sent to a central plant for final separation and storage.
The process occurs continuously for up to 8 weeks before the module is flushed and reinoculated on a staggered basis.
Though many technological paths are being pursued to help supplant fossil fuels, the majority have followed the same direction—beginning with biomass feedstocks and facing the well-known challenges of cost and scale along the way. Joule’s solar technology is bypassing these challenges while converting a waste stream into cost-competitive hydrocarbon fuels, which will have far greater and faster impact than low-percentage blendstocks or transportation alternatives that require major infrastructure overhaul. Today’s news marks another significant accomplishment in this regard, enabling production of renewable fuels that can supplant meaningful amounts—not small fractions—of fossil-derived gasoline and jet fuel.—William J. Sims, President and CEO of Joule
Joule’s hydrocarbon fuels have the additional benefit of being inherently sulfur-free. For the diesel and gasoline markets, this gives refiners the ability to meet sulfur content requirements without raising production costs or fuel prices.
As announced on 29 March, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking to further reduce the sulfur content of gasoline by more than 60% beginning in 2017, requiring significant capital cost of $10 billion and additional annual operating cost of $2.4 billion for refiners, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). Instead, Joule Sunflow-G could seamlessly cut sulfur content were it able to represent a substantial portion of the final product.
Joule is now commercializing its first product, Sunflow-E, for global availability in early 2015. Construction of the company’s first commercial plants is planned to begin in 2014 in multiple locations worldwide, requiring only adequate sunlight, access to waste CO2 and non-potable water.
In September 2012, Joule and Audi AG entered a strategic partnership to accelerate the commercialization of Sunflow-E and Sunflow-D, for the global ethanol and diesel markets respectively. (Earlier post.)
Upon full-scale commercialization, the company ultimately targets 25,000 gallons of Sunflow-E and 15,000 gallons of Sunflow-D per acre annually, for as little as $1.28/gallon and $50/barrel respectively (excluding subsidies).