Solar fuels company Joule commissions first plant to demo commercial readiness, launches Joule Fuels subsidiary to advance direct solar-to-fuels platform
11 September 2012
Joule has commissioned its first SunSprings demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico (earlier post), where the company will prove its scalable platform for solar fuel production using a fraction of the land and capital investment required for algae-derived or agricultural biofuels.
Joule has developed a highly modular system using highly engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and CO2 directly to liquid hydrocarbons and ethanol (earlier post). Unlike sugar-based biofuel producers, Joule directly and continuously converts solar energy into liquid fuels, without costly raw materials, pretreatment or downstream processing. The initial output of the SunSprings plant will be ethanol.
The SunSprings plant is designed to demonstrate the complete Joule process with its advantages in cost, scale and efficiency, all at the multi-acre scale that directly translates to full scale through modular replication.
This project is the culmination of advances not only in our core technology, but in building a commercial-ready system and engineering a scalable process that are now pilot-tested and prepared for deployment. For the first time, we are bringing the tremendous benefits of modular and linear scale to renewable fuel production, which has been notoriously hampered by batch processes, ponds and fermentation tanks that simply cannot scale without more land, more money and unpredictable results. In contrast, we’ve built a low-cost solution that emulates large-scale results and commercial-scale economics without the need for hundreds of acres or hundreds of millions of dollars. With just one module, we will show what’s possible with 100 modules or more—a low-risk, high-return equation with near-term commercial impact.—William J. Sims, President and CEO of Joule
SunSprings plant operations will begin with production of Joule Sunflow-E to compete in the ethanol market, valued at approximately $64 billion. Because Sunflow-E is derived from sunlight and industrial waste CO2, Joule can meet market demand with no depletion of natural resources or impact on global food supply and pricing.
Joule has already achieved productivity rates of 15,000 and 8,000 gallons/acre/year in the lab and outdoor production, respectively, well above the maximum productivities that biomass-dependent processes can achieve.
Following demonstration, Joule will be equipped to deploy its modular platform across multiple sites around the world, targeting initial productivities of 10,000 gallons/acre/year. This includes an opportunity to build a commercial facility in Hobbs, where the company has access to 1,200 additional acres and the inputs that drive its process. As the technology continues to advance, Joule ultimately targets productivity of up to 25,000 gallons of Sunflow-E per acre annually, at costs as low as $1.28/gallon without subsidies.
To support its progress towards commercialization, the company also announced today the launch of Joule Fuels, a global subsidiary formed to capitalize on the $1+ trillion fuels market with exclusive access to Joule’s revolutionary technology, IP and know-how. This team will oversee plant deployment and partnerships—from site selection and project development to plant construction and operations—with the immediate goal of commissioning multiple plants worldwide.
Joule’s production platform is well suited to many regions around the world, where improving local energy security and environmental performance are critical goals. We are actively seeking sites and partners to deploy Joule Fuels plants in these regions, enabling localized production of high-volume, cost-competitive fuels in a sustainable process. This includes unique opportunities for off-take partners and input providers, including industrial CO2 emitters who can meet sustainability goals by directly converting their emissions into clean, renewable fuels.—Peter Erich, President of Joule Fuels
Joule Fuels will initially commercialize Sunflow-E, with Sunflow-D for the global diesel market to follow. Unlike biodiesel, a low-concentration blendstock, Sunflow-D comprises diesel-range paraffinic alkanes and can therefore be blended with conventional diesel in concentrations of 50% or greater, displacing more oil.
Moreover, Sunflow-D is inherently sulfur-free and has a very high cetane value. Sunflow-D is now in development with an ultimate productivity target of 15,000 gallons/acre/year at costs as low as $50/barrel without subsidies.
Joule is privately held and has raised more than $110 million in funding to date.
Great promises to recycle unused CO2. Will the world run short of CO2 to be recycled into liquid fuels? Could every liquid fuel burner capture the CO2 produced and return it to be recycled?
At 10000 gallons/acre/year, USA could produce most of the liquid fuel required on 36,000,000 acres of sunny desert lands and xxxx million tonnes of CO2. Are those essential elements available? If not, how much could be made available?
Posted by: HarveyD | 11 September 2012 at 09:54 AM
".. Joule ultimately targets productivity of up to 25,000 gallons of Sunflow-E per acre annually, at costs as low as $1.28/gallon without subsidies."
Even after hyperbole, this implies the process could realistically produce $2.60/gallon fuel - which could begin putting a ceiling on oil prices.
Posted by: kelly | 11 September 2012 at 10:45 AM
Costs I have seen put just the costs of the bioreactors as making the process uneconomic, let alone cleaning them and so on.
I will believe this one when I see it working at scale.
Posted by: Davemart | 11 September 2012 at 11:51 AM
The total cost to equip the 36,000,000 acres required will be in the many dozen $T. A $10B to $20B pilot project would be more acceptable.
Posted by: HarveyD | 11 September 2012 at 03:29 PM
Industrial waste CO2 - coal and gas smokestacks.
The real result of going this route would be to extend the number of years during which we continue to burn fossil fuels.
"Whoa! We can't shut down that coal plant! That would put the Sunflow plant out of business."
"Damn the climate change. Full fossil fuel speed ahead."
(EVs run on "$1/gallon gas".)
Posted by: Bob Wallace | 11 September 2012 at 05:52 PM
Nice, im interrested to buy in my area, butanol or even e85 if someone can do a retrofit to my 2005 dodge neon. Also there is numerous co2 chimney everywhere. It's been a long time that i say to convert co2 expels from co2 chimney in electrical power plant and recirculate it back at the input as fuel.
Posted by: A D | 11 September 2012 at 06:36 PM
Ethanol fermentation plants produce CO2.
Posted by: SJC | 11 September 2012 at 07:45 PM
Is there ANYTHING to substantiate ANY of this?
MOST things that are too good to be true - are NOT TRUE.
I have not kept up with this, and it IS possible that such an earth shaking processes has really been developed.
But; reasonable doubt should not be offset by wild claims and, more importantly, doubts should never eventually be overcome just because the claims are wild enough.
Just the opposite, in fact.
Posted by: ToppaTom | 11 September 2012 at 08:46 PM
As a true skeptic I'm going with TT on this, I will hold back the cheers until I've seen independent confirmation. However, assuming it is true I have other questions.
What are the costs collecting the waste CO2 and transporting it to a solar fuels plant? This process still needs acres of cheap land and land near a CO2 producing industrial site is likely already been put to use (in other words - not cheap).
What is the well-to-wheel efficiency of this process? If you have arces of cheap land why not go with solar/wind to electricity?
Posted by: ai_vin | 11 September 2012 at 10:45 PM
Ethanol is still a food. How many Square meters are needed to make the food calories needed for one person to keep him alive. Propane is about the most convenient fuel can the organisms make it. The former president of one airline said that jet fuel can be made for less than a dollar a gallon from coal. Infinia has the best chance of converting solar energy to use for propelling vehicles. If Zebra batteries were made by the ACRE they would be far cheaper. ..HG..
Posted by: Henry Gibson | 12 September 2012 at 01:00 AM
Coal, propane. Global climate change.
The reason this site exists is to present information about "Green" cars. Not "black" cars.
More efficient fossil fuel cars while we develop truly clean cars, fine. But fossil fuels should not be the end game.
We may need liquid fuel for flight. Fine. Let's see where we can affordably create non-fossil fuel liquids without screwing food production.
Algae and some perennial grasses such as switchgrass show promise.
A new variety of switchgrass has been engineered that produces far more sugar than its parent. Switchgrass will grow on poor quality land which isn't usable for food/fiber production. Switchgrass is a native American plant that used to cover much of our plains, so it will do well without a lot of supplemental water and fertilizer. It has a massive root system which sequesters carbon and improves the quality of the soil.
Now that, to me, is a liquid fuel worth pursuing.
Setting up a plant to suck up coal smoke and use a lot of valuable solar electricity - not so.
Posted by: Bob Wallace | 12 September 2012 at 11:53 AM
Policies for Sustainable Mobility...
Cool Planet Fuels - 4000 gallons per acre from miscanthus. That seems sustainable.
Posted by: SJC | 12 September 2012 at 12:34 PM
Miscanthus, switchgrass and other plants that can grow where we don't grow food are promising. Which we grow where would largely depend on temperature/moisture/soil type needs.
About half our oil use goes to personal transportation and about 10% of that oil goes to plane fuel. Growing 5% of our oil input seems possible.
Move half of our moderate distance public travel to electrified high speed rail and we only need to grow 2.5%.
Posted by: Bob Wallace | 12 September 2012 at 05:52 PM
Miscanthus can make marginal land farm land with 10-15 years of deep roots and returning carbon to the soil.
Posted by: SJC | 13 September 2012 at 09:53 AM
That might be true of all the hardy perennial grasses. They must put down a boatload of roots in order to harvest the sparse nutrients and water characteristic to the areas in which they have evolved.
Some of the early studies with switchgrass were done on farmed out cotton fields in the deep South. A few years of growing perennial grasses on that otherwise unusable land really increased the quality of the soil.
I can see planting ribbons of some of these grasses in our grain areas as a way to trap water and fertilizer runoff. Keep some of the fertilizer out of our streams and slow the movement of water on the surface. Reduce erosion and allow more absorption into the aquifers.
Every few years the grass ribbon could be moved to improve a different parts of the field. Grain producers would be compensated by having a crop to sell for fuel and by improved soil.
Posted by: Bob Wallace | 13 September 2012 at 07:37 PM
That makes sense, you use the nutrients and develop new farm land. Over 40-50 years we could double the amount of farm land in production.
Posted by: SJC | 14 September 2012 at 07:00 AM