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Joule awarded two patents for high-volume production of ethanol from sunlight and CO2; targeting 10X yield per acre over cellulosic ethanol, 100X over corn ethanol

Joule Unlimited Technologies, a bioengineering startup leveraging highly engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and CO2 to fuels and chemicals, has been awarded its first two US patents covering its fundamental method for producing ethanol at volumes and efficiencies surpassing biomass-dependent processes.

Joule is developing pathways and mechanisms to endow photoautotrophic organisms with the capacity for the efficient production of a range of transportation fuels and chemicals directly from carbon dioxide and light, thereby eliminating the time-consuming and expensive processing steps currently required to generate biofuels and biochemicals from biomass sources including corn, sugar cane, miscanthus, cellulose, and others. (Earlier post.)

These two latest patents relate to methods for increasing the ethanol production capability of a photosynthetic microorganism. Joule’s platform microorganism is engineered to produce and secrete ethanol in a continuous process, converting more than 90% of the CO2 it consumes directly to end product, with no reliance on biomass feedstocks.

US Patent #7,981,647 (“Engineered CO2 fixing microorganisms producing carbon-based products of interest ”) and US Patent #7,968,321 (“Ethanol production by microorganisms”) cover enzymatic mechanisms engineered into the cell by Joule to maximize its ethanol productivity.

Joule claims that these innovations, together with its advances in bioprocessing and solar capture and conversion, will help it achieve an ultimate target of 25,000 gallons per acre annually—a rate that is 10X greater than that of cellulosic ethanol and 100X greater than corn ethanol—while requiring no depletion of food crops, agricultural land or fresh water. Joule is now producing ethanol at pilot scale, and has achieved nearly 50% of its ultimate productivity target in the lab, it says.

In addition, by eliminating the need for biomass, Joule avoids the burden of fluctuating feedstock cost and supply, as well as the energy-intensive, multi-step conversion of biomass to product. At full-scale commercial production Joule expects to produce ethanol for as little as $0.60/gallon.

In an open access paper published earlier this year in the journal Photosynthesis Research, a Joule team concluded that its direct, single-step, continuous process for the production of solar hydrocarbon fuels could produce the areal equivalent of up to 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually. (Earlier post.)

The market for ethanol is strong and growing internationally, and our patented technology affords Joule an incredible opportunity to meet growing demand at productivities well beyond biomass-based approaches. Rather than focus on incremental improvements along the supply chain, we have proven that a direct, continuous process from photons to fuel is the answer to highly-efficient, cost-competitive production that can scale without today’s feedstock constraints.

—Bill Sims, President and CEO of Joule

The company today holds a total of six US patents and more than 70 applications pending, derived from four years of development across biology, processes and systems.

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Comments

ejj

The first thing that comes to mind for me when reading this is EESTOR.

soltesza

The article doesn't say anything about how they get the CO2 for their process?

Although, their process seems revolutionary, the source of CO2 is the catch here (just like with algae-growth)

Do they need a coal-fired power plant to feed them CO2? In this case, their solution is nice but it is only an advanced form of carbon-capture (and reuse).

Can they suck CO2 out of the air? If their process can be viably combined with a solar-powered suction system, then I would call this revolutionary.


HarveyD

If this materializes on a large scale, it could solve USA's liquid fuel shortage and reduce crude oil imports.

Too bad that we cannot easily capture the 8 tons of CO2 per gas guzzler per year i.e. about 1,920,000,000 tons/year (for USA only) to feed those transformers. However, it should not be too difficult to capture a very high percentage of the large quantities of CO2 produced by our 450+ coal fired power plants. Done worldwide, it could make a major difference.

Is this too good to be true?

Allen

According to http://rredc.nrel.gov/solar/old_data/nsrdb/redbook/atlas/serve.cgi , the majority of the USA gets an annual average of 4-5 kWh/m3/day, or 25 billion BTU/acre/yr (1 acre = 4047 m3; 1 kWh = 3412 BTU; 365 days/yr).

It is claimed the technology described above produces 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. At a LHV of 76,330 BTU/gallon (see http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/pdfs/fueltable.pdf ), that would give us 1.9 billion BTU/acre/yr.

If we could use the ethanol with an efficiency of 35% (probably optimistic), that would give us a "field-to-wheel" efficiency of 2.7%.

Do my calculations check out? If so, I think we might be able to do better with solar panels and batteries.

Engineer-Poet

Solar panels and batteries will be more efficient, but the kicker is cost. We're not short of sunlight, we're short of investment capital.

There may be ways to capture atmospheric CO2 for such a scheme; K2CO3 + H2O + CO2 <-> 2 KHCO3 has been suggested and may work with solar heat for the reverse reaction (it only requires about 125 C).

mahonj

EP: It is much easier to store ethanol than electricity.

If it worked, or even worked at 1/4 efficiency, you could take a hard look at the middle east.

HC fuels still have a role (say in aerospace, and as a denaturant for ethanol), but you could hugely reduce demand and get some price stability back.

Herm

Nothing wrong with coal plants along with these factories in the dessert.. if it does not need much water. If you need electricity anyways and have coal (and we have lots) why not?..

but it does sound a lot like EEscam.. I wonder if there is a gotcha that they never mention.

Reel$$

Gotcha is volume production. And keeping their microorganisms alive whilst converting 90% CO2 to alcohol.

Arne

soltesza,

That is the million dollar question: can they use atmospheric CO2 or do they depend on a stationary source of CO2. If it's the latter, it is a one-time reuse of CO2 from powerplants and after that, it is relesaed into the air and not re-usable for this process.

Herm,

There is a lot wrong with coal plants in the desert. Firstly, we need to get off coal since it is very polluting in many ways (mercury, arsenic, landscape destucting mining methods). Secondly, there is little infrastructure in the desert, so you not only have to build powerlines but also (rail)roads to transport the coal to the powerplant. Power plants are preferably built near waterways because transporting coal by ship is by far the cheapest option and they need cooling water. An lastly, it doesn't really offer a good solution for reducing CO2 emissions, it is a one-time reuse of the CO2 emissions of that coal plant.

That brings me to another question: how pure must the CO2 be? If they plan to use the exhaust from coal plants, how clean does it have to be? Do their organism tolerate all the toxins present in that smoke? Or does it have to be completely pure, clean CO2?

riven

@ Harvey D

It is very difficult to capture a large percentage of CO2 from coal fired stations on the fkue gas side; it requires about -40% of the energy the statio produces to get 90% of the CO2.

HarveyD

Nothing comes 100% free. Even 60% of 90% = 54% is higher than many other energy transformers.

Henry Gibson

People are among the least efficient converters of energy.

In spite of the large amount of solar energy available, the equipment and land area to collect it is expensive because of the vast area required for the very dilute form of sunlight at the surface of the earth. Just look at your power bill and your bills for fossil energy and see how much energy you would need and how much land is required to collect it at ten percent maximum efficiency and then see if you can afford to buy that much land in the Netherlands or England etc. This does not consider the cost of collecting or processing. In the UK there was much coppiceing; do have a go at it again if you can buy the land. ..HG..

Alain

Allen,

Whatever the efficiency (and indeed, even the best organisms like super-algae are miserable compared to photovoltaic solar cells) is, if you have deserts, it is gallons/dollar and gallons/acre that counts. If it's good, than it's good.

However, I agree photovoltaics do an order of magnitude better. Storing in batteries is good, but liquid fuels do have their advantages. So I'm quite confident that electrochemical cells will be used to produce H2 out of water using (soon-to-be cheap solar electricity) and combine it with CO2 to produce liquid fuels.
Photovoltaics may soon reach 30% efficiency and dropping prices. As splitting water and CO2 to produce fuels can be done with at least 50% efficiency, it will be much more efficient than even the most optimistic autotrophic organisms. Even using organisms, feeding them with H2 and CO2 to produce fuels will most probably be much more efficient and cheaper than building large arrays of algae farms.
Nevertheless, I wish them good luck.
Aside from producing liquid fuels, simply producing (edible) biomass at such an enormous efficiency compared to any alternative we have today would be a splendid gift to humanity.
It is even an interesting thought that food derived from biomass grown from captured fossil-fuel-CO2 does not contain carbon-14 (contrary to any normal food) and is consequently less radioactive. May actually be very healthy !

Reel$$

Significant problems lie in this biochemistry at scale and in plant location. Another reason why centralized power transmission is a sorely dated technology. While some grid infrastructure will remain, a large portion of light industry and residential energy use will be converted to CHP - eliminating vulnerabilities and inefficiency of the aging grid.

Henry Gibson

An array of transparent pipes would be needed to cover the ground. CO2 can be captured into potassium hydroxide from the air and released by solar heat. CO2 pipelines are now more popular, since CO2 frees a lot more crude oil from their rock and sand formations. Some of the CO2 is permanently bonded to the minerals. CO2 is highly bonded to the salts in sea water. Whilst the phrase, ocean acidification, is used to mislead the people, the ocean will need many more centuries if not millenia of CO2 at current rates to become acidic in nature. There is very much magnesium and calcium to be deposited from the ocean as carbonates or sulfates before the oceans can become acidic from its present and long term basic state. Every carbonate deposit, including the Cliffs of Dover was once a sea with calcium and other minerals in it that collected CO2 from the air and incomming water with organic materials.

Capital costs are the issue, but the low efficiency of engines is also the issue. Hybrid vehicles could eliminate all need for biofuels with their greater efficiency. Modern electronics and batteries make the electricfication of most railways much cheaper, and along with a mandate for biofuels, there can be a mandate for the use of more efficient railways instead of the use of lorries for freight transportation. Direct current lower voltage buried cables can enable the massive deployment of much cheaper highly interrupted third rail railway electrification along with battery equipped electrodiesel hybrid locomotives and multiple units.

Major motorways can also be electrified with simple contact rails or much more complicated systems. Others have also proposed dragging lorries along with electomagnets built into the pavement.

The high cost of petroleum is not a lack of supply issue but a geopolitical failure of the energy market. From recent much lower oil prices it can be guessed that production costs are a small fraction of the market prices driven high by speculations with past profits. Aircraft fuel can be produced from coal at $35 a barrel including capital costs and operating costs according to JETBLUE.

Infinia produces parabolic solar electric generators with an efficiency of more than 20 percent. Use direct current cables to take it to the electric grid at high efficiency over many miles. Use power from the electric grid to operate a small electric car for all round trips that are less than 40 miles. A 20 kilo or less engine generator can take you and return you with the occasional dead battery from longer trips at 30 miles per hour. ..HG..

HarveyD

HG....many good ideas:

1. Why coal derived jet fuel in not produced, if so cheap?
Where is the American business enterprising will?

2. Price of most commodities are set by speculators.
That's nothing new.

3. Two or three Indian firms are planning to produce small plug-ins with mini gensets, specially for the local and Asian market.

4. Nobody really knows how much acidity can the oceans (and their inhabitants) withstand by adaptation.

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