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Joule secures first of multiple sites for solar fuel production; expects costs as low as $20/bbl for renewable diesel (including subsidies) at full-scale production

The Helioculture concept. Source: Joule. Click to enlarge.

Joule Unlimited, Inc., the developer of a direct, single-step, continuous process for the production of solar hydrocarbon fuels (earlier post), has signed a lease agreement providing access to 1,200 acres in Lea County, New Mexico, with the potential to scale the project up to 5,000 acres for production of renewable diesel and ethanol directly from sunlight and waste CO2 using its engineered photosynthetic microorganisms. The agreement with Lea County is the first to be completed as part of Joule’s production facility siting program.

Joule says Lea County ideally meets it requirements for production, including high solar insolation, access to non-potable water and waste CO2. In addition, Joule could benefit from $19 million in state incentives to facilitate operations at commercial scale. This includes a tax credit made possible by the Advanced Energy Product Manufacturers Tax Credit Act, which the state legislature voted to amend in recognition of new, breakthrough processes like Joule’s that merit qualification.

This is an exciting first step for Joule in an effort to secure multiple optimal sites for demonstration, both within and beyond the United States, and to ultimately commercialize our process at the scale, costs and productivities that can make a strong impact in the global fuels market. In stark contrast to the complex, energy-intensive processes required to produce biofuels from biomass, Joule is forging ahead with a platform for high-volume production of renewable, infrastructure-ready diesel and ethanol at stable, competitive costs. We thank the state and Lea County officials for their tremendous support of this project.

—Bill Sims, President and CEO of Joule

Schematic comparison between direct photosynthetic (top) and algal biomass (bottom) processes. Source: Robertson et al. Click to enlarge.

Joule’s process, called Helioculture, combines an engineered cyanobacterial organism supplemented with a product pathway and secretion system to produce and secrete a fungible alkane diesel product continuously in a SolarConverter designed to efficiently and economically collect and convert photonic energy. The process is closed and uses industrial waste CO2 at concentrations 50–100 times higher than atmospheric.

The diesel process yields long-chain alkanes, the majority component of diesel fuel, as opposed to a low-percentage blendstock like biodiesel. As a result it can immediately drop in to the existing diesel infrastructure with no need for refining or chemical processing.

Joule’s production facilities will employ the next generation of the company’s novel SolarConverter system, which manages the direct, continuous process from photon capture to product synthesis and separation with efficiencies that are up to 50X greater than those of biomass-dependent processes. At full-scale production, Joule expects to deliver diesel and ethanol for as little as $20/bble and $0.60/gallon respectively, including current subsidies.

A Joule team, including Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics George Church, Joule co-founder and chairman of its technical advisory board, published a paper earlier this year in the journal Photosynthesis Research showing that the Joule process can produce the areal equivalent of up to 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually. (Earlier post.)


  • Dan E. Robertson, Stuart A. Jacobson, Frederick Morgan, David Berry, George M. Church and Noubar B. Afeyan (2011) A new dawn for industrial photosynthesis. Photosynthesis Research doi: 10.1007/s11120-011-9631-7



"secretion system to produce and secrete a fungible alkane diesel product continuously in a SolarConverter designed to efficiently and economically collect and convert photonic energy."

I don't know, my "sounds too good to be true" alarm is going off with this one. It is probably just me and I hope this actually works out.


I'm with you SJC. I would love for this to be real, but if there was a way to produce bio-fuel at $100/bl, companies would be lining up to own every square inch of New Mexico and Arizona and West Texas.

If this is real, and it's anywhere CLOSE to $20/bl, then the whole world will change.

But it sounds too good to be true.


There is little doubt the entire operation is being structured around the subsidies for profitability...which is really sad.



I think you may be right, a sucker born every minute and two to take them. That is why I favor a carbon tax over cap and trade. Cap and trade can be gamed, a company dumps iron into the ocean and gets credits to be sold for cash.


What size of total subsidies is involved? Could it be as high as $100/barrel?


"$19 million in state incentives"

Which is peanuts on top of DOE help, I would imagine. I do not think that they will get a per barrel allowance, but if you read the previous posts it went from 20,000 gallons per acre of ethanol to 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre, from $30 per barrel to $20 per barrel, it seems to be a cut to fit specification.


just say BS

Looks like 19 million that will disappear


They also applied for a $10 million grant to build their first plant, but I could not find anything that says they got it. The have received $30 million in private funding last year.


Still using waste CO2 which is not sustainable. Needs to use atmospheric.


Ethanol plants that do fermentation produce CO2, breweries, bakeries, cement plants, the list goes on.


To recycle some of the many many million tonnes of CO2 that we produce would be a win-win solution if it can be done. It is worth investigating.


Oh yeah, if this is real it is a major deal. We would hope that the private investors have done their due diligence and actually saw that it was real.

It is just the statements about being profitable at $50 per barrel and then they can produce at $30 and then it is $20 and first it is ethanol and then it is diesel that seems puzzling.

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