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Joule Achieves Direct Microbial Conversion of CO2 into Hydrocarbons

Joule Biotechnologies, Inc. reported a major step forward in its development of renewable fuels, achieving direct microbial conversion of carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons via engineered organisms, powered by solar energy. (Earlier post.) The breakthrough was made possible by the discovery of unique genes coding for enzymatic mechanisms that enable the direct synthesis of both alkane and olefin molecules. Production was achieved at lab scale, with pilot development slated for early 2011.

Joule is advancing a new, photosynthesis-driven approach to producing renewable fuels, avoiding the economic and environmental burden of multi-step, cellulosic or algal biomass-derived methods.

The company employs a novel SolarConverter system, together with proprietary, product-specific organisms and advanced process design, to harness the power of sunlight while consuming waste CO2. Its technology platform has already been proven out with the conversion of CO2 into ethanol at high productivities, a process that enters pilot development in early 2010.

With its latest genome engineering, Joule is now capable of directly producing hydrocarbons—setting the stage for delivery of infrastructure-compatible diesel fuel without the need for raw material feedstocks or complex refining.

This achievement marks a critical step towards making renewable diesel fuel a reality at high volumes and competitive costs. We are accelerating the pace to create a direct replacement for petroleum-based diesel that can use today’s storage and distribution methods, with a very high net energy balance, and without the depletion of natural resources incurred by biomass-to-liquid approaches. It won’t happen overnight, but this latest milestone opens the door to an industry-changing technology.

—Bill Sims, President and CEO, Joule Biotechnologies

According to OPEC’s 2009 World Outlook, world demand for middle distillate fuel, chiefly diesel, will grow faster than any other refined oil product to 34.2 million barrels per day by 2030. The US currently consumes approximately 19 million barrels of fuel per day, with diesel accounting for three million of that amount.

Joule is directly targeting this opportunity with a production process that requires only CO2 as opposed to raw material feedstocks, removing a costly component that can be subject to significant fluctuations in price and availability. Because its organisms are being engineered to directly secrete hydrocarbon molecules, Joule will avoid costly steps such as large-scale biomass collection, energy-intensive degradation, or other downstream refinement. In addition, Joule’s process requires just marginal, non-arable land, no crops and no fresh water.

David Berry, company founder and director, will discuss Joule’s latest developments at the BIO Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy during the plenary lunch session on 10 November.



This could be a good idea for future liquid fuel, specially diesel fuel type.

If the maths are correct, it would take about 7.7 million acres of sunny land area + about 1 150 million tons of Co2 to produce 10 million barrels of liquid fuel per day. Twice that would cover the current USA consumption.

No problem finding (7.7 x 2 = 15.4) million acres of sunny dessert land but where would the captured (1,150 x 2 = 2,300) million tons of CO2 come from? It may have to be piped in from a few dozen neighbouring and far away coal fired power plants.


With this no more nuclear, inneficient windmills, costly hydro dams, coal electricity. Just recycled the co2 from heat power -plants ( coal, natural gas electric plants) with this recycled at infineam co2 to fuel to co2 powering method without fuel costs and no pollution. I know that high-financial folks that control arms, deaseases, hospitals, pills, petrol, police, army, banks, security, laws, regulations, subsidies, depts, medias, schools, nutritions, pension plants, technologies will oppose but at least start a small electric power station near where i live and cut electric bills by 5.


From the press release: "In addition, Joule’s process requires just marginal, non-arable land, no crops and no fresh water". In other words, this process looks like it can be set up in some of the worst environments like deserts & produce fuel. Maybe someday this technology can be deployed on an industrial scale in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India & China. Synthetic Genomics will be paying attention to this too.


There are some microbes which will turn CO2 into CH4 with the application of electricity. At the end of the day it makes more sense to make use of electricity directly and avoid any energy conversions as they usually involve lots of energy loss. Its the thermodynamics stupid!


I am not sure how this differs from trees or algae?


The trees produce much more complex molecules (cellulosic) that must then be broken down to get back to simpler hydrocarbons. This skips that process completely (apparently) and starts producing hydrocarbons directly.
I wonder if they can tune it to only produce methane, or only butane, or propane, Or if you get random molecules.
You still need a carbon source. Yes, captured carbon from coal is better than releasing directly from smoke stack, but it eventually will be released after burning the methane (or whatever) from this process.


Photosynthetic efficiency
Photosynthesis can be simply represented by the equation: CO2 + H2O + light !’ 6 (CH2O) + O2

Approximately 114 kilocalories of free energy are stored in plant biomass for every mole of CO2 fixed during photosynthesis. Solar radiation striking the earth on an annual basis is equivalent to 178,000 terawatts, i.e. 15,000 times that of current global energy consumption. Although photosynthetic energy capture is estimated to be ten times that of global annual energy consumption, only a small part of this solar radiation is used for photosynthesis. Approximately two thirds of the net global photosynthetic productivity worldwide is of terrestrial origin, while the remainder is produced mainly by phytoplankton (microalgae) in the oceans which cover approximately 70% of the total surface area of the earth. Since biomass originates from plant and algal photosynthesis, both terrestrial plants and microalgae are appropriate targets for scientific studies relevant to biomass energy production.

Any analysis of biomass energy production must consider the potential efficiency of the processes involved. Although photosynthesis is fundamental to the conversion of solar radiation into stored biomass energy, its theoretically achievable efficiency is limited both by the limited wavelength range applicable to photosynthesis, and the quantum requirements of the photosynthetic process. Only light within the wavelength range of 400 to 700 nm (photosynthetically active radiation, PAR) can be utilized by plants, effectively allowing only 45 % of total solar energy to be utilized for photosynthesis. Furthermore, fixation of one CO2 molecule during photosynthesis, necessitates a quantum requirement of ten (or more), which results in a maximum utilization of only 25% of the PAR absorbed by the photosynthetic system. On the basis of these limitations, the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In practice, however, the magnitude of photosynthetic efficiency observed in the field, is further decreased by factors such as poor absorption of sunlight due to its reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels. The net result being an overall photosynthetic efficiency of between 3 and 6% of total solar radiation.

Of this 3-6% only a part goes into making the desired fuel [Does anyone know how much?] and the rest is used to grow the organism so the Photosynthetic efficiency drops to 3-6% * ?%. Then you have to factor in the efficiency of the engine, about 25%, which drops the Photosynthetic efficiency even farther.

Let's say their organism is the best at capturing light and turns half of it's biomass into fuel and the engine is really good; the Photosynthetic efficiency would be 6% * 50% * 33% = 1%

The other dog of an idea, solar/hydrogen/FCV, is a bit better. The efficiency of hydrogen production is relatively low: Cheap PV solar panels are 10% efficient * 75% electrolysis efficiency * 90% hydrogen compression efficiency * 50% PEM fuel cell efficiency * 92% electric motor efficiency = 3.1% system efficiency.

BEVs are better still: Cheap PV solar panels are 10% efficient * 95% grid transmission * 85% battery charge/discharge efficiency * 92% electric motor efficiency = 7.4% system efficiency.

Better solar power plant designs can double or triple those last two final numbers, but wont help the first one.

And there are other [better] ways to generate electricity but the biofuel method HAS to use solar.


ai_vin: Excellent points. But thinking about this some more, I think this is less about efficiency and more about profit potential. If all of your inputs are free or dirt cheap, and your output needs little or no refining and has a marketable value per gallon that is higher than gasoline, this could be big.


Too true.

Roger Pham

@ai vin,
You've made a good point regarding the inefficiency of photosynthesis. But, in the near future, solar PV panel is not restricted to 10% efficiency. Concentrated PV's can routinely obtain 30% efficiency, and yet, is cheaper than regular PV due to less silicon is used. Now then, with net photosynthesis efficiency at 3% max from solar to oil, in comparison to concentrated solar PV at 30% efficiency solar to electricity, or solar to Hydrogen at 25% efficiency, we can see that the amount of land use would be 8x higher solar to oil than solar to hydrogen.

With so much land areas used for photo-bioreactor to collect sun light, just imagine the cost and the logistic nightmare of maintaining this vast area, while piping in the CO2 and draining out the oil! Oil spill, everyone? environmental nightmare!

By contrast, with solar to electricity to hydrogen route, the solar collector can be mounted in existing rooftop or covered parking areas...no new land use...no new electrical powerlines...existing powerlines would be sufficient...The Hydrogen can be produced near the site of retail via electrolysis...much more economical and environmentally sound! And, FCV's give out NO Pollution...No need to comply with different emission standards at different parts of the world that would give nightmares to automakers.


@ai vin and Roger Pham

Firstly, efficiency is not everything, ROI/EROEI are what makes a project economically sound (hence realistic). Efficiency for solar conversion is just an indirect measure of the land area that needs to be exposed, but I don't think we are really missing unused land on earth.
Secondly, this method produce liquid fuel directly, which is a very dense and cheap energy vector. Batteries are not quite there yet.
Thirdly, this method can be used to recycle CO2 from fossil based power plants, which are not going to disappear in the near future.

Henry Gibson

The figures for photosysnthesis seem well thought out and they corrrespond to known values of efficiencies for growing sugar cane. What is not well understood is the costs of the capital for building the operational facilities. With the higher efficiencies available with Sterling and other engines using solar heat, it is likely that electricity can be produced for Plug-In Hybrids at a lower capital cost per mile. Infinia has a small solar generator and others are building large ones.

Even cheap lead acid batteries are capable of being used in plug in hybrids for the average distance travelled. Firefly is eliminating much of the lead to make the weight even smaller. EFFPOWER has also eliminated much of the lead used and made a very high power lead battery to compete with nickle-hydride and perhaps ultracapacitors. Higher energy capacity but low power Sodium-sulphur or ZEBRA batteries might be combined with EFFPOWER units for cheaper vehicles but longer full electric range. In all cases it does not cost much to install one or two range extenders to eliminate the need for large expensive batteries, any mention in the press of limited range and customer range anxiety.

Capstone is modifying its air bearing turbine to use solar heat from a parabolic collector instead of fuel, and the simple turbine may be less expensive than Stirling engines as there can be a balance of costs between efficiency and collector area.

Solar energy is free but so is any other form of energy that humans use. The cost of the energy depends upon the cost of collecting it and converting it to use. The high cost of oil right now is because people must now pay bribes to various companies and governments that have control of the wells. These producers including the US government have instituted controls to keep the price of oil much higher than the cost of getting it out of the ground. These controls include making alternate sources of fuels and other energy difficult to use.

The cost of natural gas or the cost of coal is a small part of the cost of making automobile fuels from these sources. If coal were delivered free to the gates of a power plants, the cost of electricity to the ordinary consumer would be reduced only from 10 cents a KWH to 7.5 cents per KWH. The fact that solar energy is delivered free to many areas in large quantities will not make electricity any cheaper than 7.5 cents per KWH, and in fact it will be much more because more land area and more equipment will have to be built to collect the dilute solar energy. Land is not free; just try to buy any part of sunny California that is suited for solar energy. It would be cheaper in Nevada and Arizona.

A singe fuel element array for CANDU reactors contains about 20 kg of natural uranium. You may have to pay about $2000 dollars for that much uranium because of the present speculation in the price of uranium, but at one time you could have bought it for less than $400. It will produce enough electricity to run an ordinary house for 100 years.

Automatic equipment could be made to take the used fuel rods, now in storage at over one hundred US nuclear power plants, and cut and weld them to use directly in CANDU reactors. Since the power companies are spending a lot of money to temporarly store and to build permanent storage for these fuel rods, the energy value in them is more than free. The US power companies would pay CANDU reactor companies to take the fuel and modify their handling methods to use this fuel.

If the price of natural uranium stays above $100 a kilogram, all of the CANDU reactor operators would consider buying US spent fuel and building a company to convert it to the right shape.

If the material in the old US fuel elements were processed to remove only the about three percent of useless fission products, then it could be blended with as little as one part in three of the vast tons of depleted uranium also in storage and still be used as more active fuel for CANDU reactors than the natural uranium they already use. If the fission products and plutonium were removed, the fuel bundles would still have more energy than natural uranium ones.

The long lived plutonium and other trans-uranic elements that people are worried about would be partially used up, but more would be created. It could be returned year after year to the new CANDU fuel elements and within a few years, the original transuranics and plutonium isotope mix from the used US fuel would be gone by converting to 10,000,000 kilo-watt-hours of heat energy per pound.

The plutonium isotope mix in US used fuel rods cannot be used to make a bomb like the first nuclear bomb made with plutonium or the third that destroyed Nagasaki. It could possibly be used to make a very weak nuclear bomb, but it would be easier and faster to either concentrate uranium isotopes with the new fast and cheap centrifuges or to build a reactor and chemical factory to produce high purity plutonium 239 isotope, as was done for the two plutonium bombs used during WWII.

More people were killed in Dresden with conventional bombs and fires than were killed at Nagasaki. Far more people were killed in Japan with conventional bombs and fires than were killed by both nuclear bombs. Far more Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese troups than were killed by the US nuclear Bombs. Far more people are dead in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait because of lust for the riches of petrolium by Iraq and Iran and their religeous differences.

The CANDU operators can also blend two or three parts of their used fuel after only the fission products are removed with one part of US used fuel after only the fission products are removed and still have more energy concentrated fuel than natural uranium. They would then be eliminating their used fuel rods with the plutonium in them as well as eliminating US used fuel rods. The mix of Plutonium isotopes after two or more cycles through the reactor becomes totally worthless as bomb material.

Quotes from Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


"The energy density of nuclear fission (energy available per kg of fuel) is the highest of any option today. This reduces both the use of natural resources, and the impact of resource extraction. One CANDU fuel bundle, about the size of a fire log, can power an average home for one hundred years. The same amount of energy would require 400 tonnes of coal, or 60,000 gallons of oil, or 10 million cubic feet of natural gas.

The waste stream from nuclear energy is the most manageable of any option for large-scale electricity production. The waste is entirely contained at each plant, in physical form identical to the fuel that went into the reactors. Each 20 kg spent CANDU fuel bundle is a compact, highly inert package, containing all of the waste products created by over a million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount of electricity produced by coal would create 100 tonnes of ash, 1000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and 5 tonnes of acid gases, deposited in the atmosphere or in landfills. Natural gas is cleaner, but would still emit 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and 2 tonnes of acid gases [3]. Furthermore, a passive solution exists for the long-term disposal or storage of spent nuclear fuel, reducing its impact on the biosphere to near zero."

If Plutonium and other tran-uranics were removed from used fuel, they could be mixed in the ratio of one or two pounds to a hundred pounds of thorium and put into CANDU 20 kilogramm fuel bundles and used in present CANDU reactors. This would start a perpetual fuel cycle that used only thorium which is three times more abundant than natural uranium. Such a system could also eliminate most plutonium and other transuranics and produce more fuel from them. These systems can get the full 10,000,000 kWh worth of heat energy from not only plutonium from spent fuel but also from military surplus uranium and plutonium that contain energy directly worth $150,000 of market coal per pound of metal.

The most effective way of instantly preventing military plutonium from being used in bombs is to mix it with plutonium recovered from used MOX fuels of French reactors. This mix can be used in new MOX fuels for French reactors or some US reactors. This plutonium that some wanted to be destroyed uselessly is more cheaply and effectively used as fuel in the mentioned thorium cycles.

With great care, the thorium cycle wastes no thorium and continues operation with only thorium added to the fuel cycle along with the uranium 233 produced from the thorium of the previous cycle. The very few trans-uranics made are simply used in the fuel of the next cycle and eliminated.

Any electricity produced by a nuclear power plant can be used to electrolyse hydrogen from water. This hydrogen can be combined with CO2 to make methanol directly. High temperature electrolysis can reduce the elctricity needed. The planned very high temperature nuclear reactors can make hydrogen without electricity. But even with inefficient electricity, reactors can make hydrogen equivalent to more than 7500 gallons of gasoline for each $2000 dollar fuel bundle or for each 20 kg of free US used fuel rods. But it would be eight to ten times more efficient to use the electricity to run plug-in-hybrid cars.

Corn ethanol factories should be built right next to nuclear reactors to use the low carbon, low cost heat. Hyperion Power Generation may make nuclear reactors that can produce heat for ethanol factories.

Hydrogen from nuclear power plants can also be used to make ethanol or any kind of fuel. The mentioned organisms could probably be adapted to the feeding of hydrogen and CO2 with no light. ..HG..


Roger I think the petroleum refining and distribution industry has the spill problem pretty well minimized at this point. Governments I think would be inclined to overlook these kinds of risks when you are talking about the potential for jobs, jobs, jobs and TAX REVENUE....bio-refinery infrastructure would need to be built along with CO2 pipelines, and there would be a demand for new tanker trucks to bring the diesel to market.


Just because there may be an effective use for atmospheric CO2 in the future, doesn't mean the coal mines and oil companies now have a license to keep extracting. If it is taken out of the atmosphere on the first burn, then converted to diesel, it will enter the atmosphere on the second burn. Problem NOT solved.


To creativforce,

You didn't read my earlier post into this tread, isn't it ?

I said to recycle the co2 from natural gas electric plant and coal electric plant from their chimney over and over again for free fuel operation and no pollution and 5x less cost for the electricity. They just have to install green algae farming at their chimney location or this new process. They transform the co2 into hydrocarbons of ant sort, then they burn this hydrocarbon back into the electric plant. This way no pollution and the fuel is constantly recycled for a free fuel operation without pollution.

The industry should do this today and never bother me again with ' problems' . Don't make me repeat it.

Roger Pham

@Alessio, a.b et al,
Without supplementing CO2, photosynthetic efficiency will be around 1%. With CO2 supplement, efficiency will incease to ~3%, but it will be an engineering nightmare to collect CO2 from the power plants and to transport it to the photo-bioreactor.
By contrast, solar PV panels require very little maintenance and will last for decades. PV panels can be mounted on existing structures and need no new infrastructure for conducting the electricity to the grid. Investment will be much, much lower for solar PV. Wind energy is already competitive with fossil fuel for electricity production.

Get away from oil, moving on to battery and hydrogen.


I'm an electrical engineer in favor of EV's, but heavy lifters/aircraft/plastics will need need hydrocarbons for a LONG time.

There appear to be no cost estimates, but direct conversion of even existing coal powered electrical plant CO2 into hydrocarbons makes a lot more sense than pumping it underground and praying is stays there.



I'm well aware the the 10% efficiency figure I gave was too low, that was my point. And I'm also well aware of those concentrated PV's which get 30%, that's why I wrote; "Better solar power plant designs can double or triple those last two final numbers." But by quoting the lowest figure for the solar route while giving every advantage to the biofuel route I show that even when an inefficient solar power generator is used it's still much better than the biofuel route.


This is simply about (potential) profit...given the US market price of diesel and the possibility of future price fluctuations (esp. to the upside), there is the very real potential for a lot of money to be made with this system --- almost like printing money.


To Roger Pharm.

Why is it a engineering nightmare to collect co2 from a chimney ? A kid can do it.


Don't get me wrong. I like the simplicity of use of solar panels. But they have a problem that is quite well known: they cost a lot to produce. They require a lot of cristalline silicon which requires really high temperatures to produce. The concentrated ones use less and different semiconductors, but still they are not cheaper, and don't work as well in all illumination conditions.

If PV was cheap, everyone would have panels on their roof, people are not stupid (at least when talking about money). Also, PV like all renewables, have a very high initial (infrastructure) cost, which is a difficult barrier to overcome, since it requires long-term financing that is not always available.

As for this technology, maybe it does not work, maybe is not realistic and it won't old on their promises. But you can't drop the idea simply because PV is simpler to maintain, when PV is not exactly simple to produce (you won't do it in your backyard). And really, collecting CO2 is not exactly a problem, you can search google for Carbon Capture and Storage technologies...


To alessio,

Why collect co2 and store it ?? I just said to convert it to fuels at the chimney location. O.K ?

Roger Pham

"Why is it a nightmare to collect CO2 from a chimney..."

CO2 is a gas, not a liquid. This gas must be compressed, along with the air mixed with it, and put in high-pressure tanks and transported to the field. Just imagine the associated cost with it! Or, pipelines must be built to route this gas to the field, equally expensive, given the massive land area needed for photosynthesis. Using plants, you just have to sow the seeds and irrigate it, without managing the bioreactor as with algae, nor worrying about CO2 supplementation. The price of PV panels are going down rapidly with investment going up and new technologies, like the CIGS solar panel that does not use silicon. I predict a 10-fold reduction in the price of PV panels in due time, same ten-fold price reduction with LCD TV's and monitors.

But, for limited algae oil production for use as lubricants or organic synthesis feedstock at limited locations, this technology is quite promising.


To you..
I just said to collect all co2 at the chimney location and transform it to fuel, is it clear or not. No more coal business, no more natural gas business, no more nuclear business, no more inneficient windmills business, no more hydro-electricity business. Just self-feeded electric generation plants at the usual 60 htz 750 000 volts electric output.

Are you a trader?

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