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Joule first to gain US EPA clearance for commercial use of modified cyanobacteria for fuel production

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has favorably reviewed Joule’s Microbial Commercial Activity Notice (MCAN) for the company’s first commercial ethanol-producing catalyst (a modified Synechococcus cyanobacterium). This clears the catalyst for commercial use at the company’s demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico.

This also marks the first time that EPA has allowed the commercial use of a modified cyanobacterium (although not of other modified microorganisms such as S. cerevisiae, E. coli, T. reesei, etc.). (The full list of EPA notifications under the Toxic Substances Control Act—TSCA—is available here.)

(EPA does not “approve” MCANs, it “reviews” them. During the review, EPA may determine that regulatory action is necessary. This can include restricting the manufacture, processing or use of the microorganisms; requiring recordkeeping or reporting; or, if necessary, an outright ban on commercialization of the microorganism. If the Agency can not conclude that there is an unreasonable risk to health or the environment, or a substantial or significant exposure, the submission is “dropped from review,” and the company can begin commercialization after the review period has expired. Joule filed its MCAN in July 2012.)

Solar fuels company Joule has developed a portfolio of bio-catalysts engineered to consume and convert continuously industrial waste CO2 emissions directly to transportation fuels. The catalysts are derived from an environmentally benign cyanobacterium that exists naturally in the wild, and Joule has redirected the metabolism of multiple strains for the production of specific products, including ethanol and diesel-range alkanes. (Earlier post.)

This enables the continuous, single-step conversion of CO2 to fuels, negating the need for biomass feedstocks and complex downstream processing.

MCAN filings are required by the EPA prior to commercial use of certain modified microbes, including for biofuel or bio-based chemical production.

In its review of Joule’s MCAN, EPA had no health or safety objections to use of the modified strain at the Hobbs facility. Joule and EPA have entered into a voluntary consent order which allows Joule to use this catalyst strain commercially at the Hobbs facility, while also providing EPA with further data resulting from such use.

The favorable review of our first MCAN is an important step. This work will help us not only meet or better EPA regulations beyond our plant in Hobbs, but also outside the US as we industrialize our solar, CO2-to-fuels platform.

—Paul Snaith, President and CEO of Joule



With any microbial driven process I always wonder about the efficiency of conversion and the window of nutrient/product concentrations where the microbe can act efficiently. This is because it may determine in part how large and diffuse the system of conversion will be. Meaning it may determine capital investment amounts (do you need big tanks and lots of pumps) and how expensive operation is, does it take a lot of stirring and pumping and how parasitic is this on the product output.


I have my doubts about Joule, it looks like a good way to milk money from investors. They never mentioned any nutrients in the beginning, telling people it turned CO2 into gasoline like magic. Now they mention nutrients, but they won't say what they are, where they will get them or what they will cost.

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