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Joule Biotechnologies Introduces Its Technology for Producing Renewable Transportation Fuels

Joule Biotechnologies uses proprietary, highly-engineered product-specific organisms to produce renewable fuels and chemicals. Click to enlarge.

Joule Biotechnologies, Inc., a bioengineering startup, unveiled its Helioculture technology—a system that leverages highly engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and CO2 to usable transportation fuels and chemicals. Among the co-founders of Joule Biotechnologies is Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics George Church, who also co-founded LS9.

Joule’s SolarFuels meet today’s vehicle fuel specifications and infrastructure; the company expects to achieve widespread production at the energy equivalent of less than $50 per barrel. The company’s first product offering, SolarEthanol fuel, will be ready for commercial-scale development in 2010. Joule has also demonstrated proof of concept for producing hydrocarbon fuel and expects process demonstration by 2011.

Joule says that its direct-to-fuel conversion requires no agricultural land or fresh water, and leverages a highly scalable system capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually. Such yields would far eclipse productivity levels of current bio- or renewable fuels.

There is no question that viable, renewable fuels are vitally important, both for economic and environmental reasons. And while many novel approaches have been explored, none has been able to clear the roadblocks caused by high production costs, environmental burden and lack of real scale. Joule was created for the very purpose of eliminating these roadblocks with the best equation of biotechnology, engineering, scalability and pricing to finally make renewable fuel a reality—all while helping the environment by reducing global CO2 emissions.

—Bill Sims, president and CEO of Joule Biotechnologies

Joule says that its SolarConverter system facilitates the entire process—from sunlight capture to product conversion and separation—with minimal resources and polishing operations. This represents an advantage over biomass-derived biofuels, including newer algae- and cellulose-based forms, which are hindered by varying obstacles: costly biomass production, numerous processing steps, substantial scale-up risk and capital costs.

The modular SolarConverter design is engineered to meet demand on a global scale while requiring just a fraction of the land needed for biomass-based approaches. It can be easily customized depending on land size, CO2 availability and desired output. The functionality is proven and can readily scale from smaller operations with limited land to extensive commercial plants. Additional benefits enabled by the system include:

  • Multiple Product Lines. The same conversion technology and modular system used to produce SolarFuel liquid energy will also enable the production of SolarChemical products, several of which have already been demonstrated at laboratory scale.

  • Optimal Storage of Solar Power. Because Joule harnesses the sun to produce energy in the form of liquid fuel, it overcomes a major obstacle to the broad-based use of solar power, namely storage. SolarFuel liquid energy has up to 100 times the energy storage density of conventional batteries, and can be very efficiently stored and transported with no degradation of power.

Founded in 2007 by Flagship Ventures, Joule is privately held and headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



This seems like an announcement targeted towards potential investors. 20,000 versus 2000 gallons per acre seems like quite a claim. I am used to venture start ups promising the moon, excuse me if I am more than a bit skeptical.


Wonder how many acres of these converters would be required to use most of the CO2 produced by an average size coal powered electricity generation plant?

If it works, couldn't the existing highly polluting coal powered plant owners or operators be convinced to colocate enough of these convertors to use (re-cycle) the CO2 they produced?

Of course, using the liquid fuel produced would probably re-create as much CO2 but it would reduce Oil imports while reducing the total CO2 production foot print by re-cycling it.


It is not clear how much CO2 these converters need.
As HarveyD said if it works, it will recycle the CO2 that those coal powered plants produce, these converters will replace the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) concept which is also doubtful if CCS technology will be matured.


A look at the investors and funding sources would tell us more than the PR release. Private money is a good sign. Subsidy and grant fishing are not.

It all sounds too rosy. Extraordinary claims. Proprietary organisms. CO2 and sunlight, harmony and understanding.

They probably omitted water input to simplify the diagram. Otherwise where does H enter the process?

To my uneducated eye this looks like a variant of the many algae biofuel processes that have been stuggling for years,

But maybe not, I am not qualified to evaluate biofuel anything. Will anyone comment about what they see as new in this process?


Electrolyze water using solar or wind energy.
React with CO2 in Sabatier reactor.
Produced fuel (CH4) already has an in place infrastructure.

You can't get much simpler or cheaper than that. And bio-organism could in theory be less expensive, but it would also be way less efficient as well, which means more area of collectors needed, which will raise costs.


"Joule was created for the very purpose of eliminating these roadblocks with the best equation of biotechnology, engineering, scalability and pricing to finally make renewable fuel a reality—all while helping the environment by reducing global CO2 emissions."

Does sound awful rosy. But hey, it's moving in the right direction. It's also strange that these PR pieces forget to mention that biofuels generally emit far less real pollutants (CO,NO2, particulates, etc) than petrol-based fuels. THAT is a major advantage going unrecognized.



You can't be serious, most of the H2 would use to produce water in ths Sabatier process, the efficiency would be horrendous


Yeah but Treehugger the photosynthetic efficiency of plants is horrendous. On average only 3-6% of the solar energy gets converted into biomass.
A typical plant is only 0.1-2.0% efficient, a typical crop plant [bred for efficiency] gets 1.0-2.0%, sugarcane gets as much as 8% and algae may be as high as 11% but not when the light has to go through too much water.

And after you get the biomass you have to factor in the efficiency of the convertion to fuel process.

And what about the upstream efficiencies? This "SolarConverter system" must have energy consuming pumps and stuff to circulate the water, add CO2, etc.


What I said about "upstream efficiencies?"-


If these claims are even close to true, this would be an incredible breakthough. My "too good to be true" radar has been triggered as Joule Biotechnologies claims are just so over the top fantastic. I know that press releases typically do not dwell on the downside, but a little of that would have helped the credibility. Let's wait for the details to come out. I will hope this is not another "cold fusion" deal.

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