19 January 2012

Synthetic Diesel @ $1.19/Gal and 25,000 Gal / Acre?

Joule Unlimited, a startup based in Bedford, Massachusetts, has received $70 million to commercialize technology that uses microörganisms to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into liquid fuel.

The company claims that its genetically engineered bacteria will eventually be able to produce ethanol for as little as $1.23 a gallon or diesel fuel for $1.19 a gallon, less than half the current cost of both fossil fuels and existing biofuels...The company, formerly known as Joule Biotechnologies, claimed in 2009 that its organisms could in theory produce as much as 20,000 gallons of ethanol on an acre of land in single year. Company officials now say their target is 25,000 gallons per acre, and that efficiencies they have already demonstrated take them 60 percent of the way to that goal. _MIT Technology Review


Of course we have to remember that the company is talking about both ethanol and diesel, so it is important to pin them down at each point, as to which fuel they are talking about. Can they actually make diesel for $1.19/Gal and at a rate of 25,000 Gal/acre/year? No. The company is expressing a goal for combined production of both ethanol and diesel together. Not as impressive as for diesel alone, but we should still give them a chance to explain why they are so hopeful.
In a peer-reviewed paper published last year in the journal Photosynthesis Research, Robertson and others showed that their process can achieve an overall efficiency of 7.2 percent in converting sunlight to liquid fuel. The figure is roughly seven times higher than the efficiency rate of systems that use naturally occurring microörganisms. The key to the increased efficiency, Robertson says, is that the engineered bacteria can secrete liquid fuels continuously. Nonengineered microbes produce oils that have to be harvested and refined into fuels, and the organisms have to be ground up to release the oils, so each batch yields only a single harvest.

The microbes that attain 60 percent of the company's stated productivity goal have been secreting ethanol in outdoor SolarConverters at the company's three-acre pilot plant for the past six months. To increase efficiency, Robertson says, the company will further manipulate the organisms' genetic makeup to limit all biological processes that compete with fuel production. For example, Joule has been working for several years to shut down genetic pathways that allow the organisms to keep growing. That should enable them to devote more energy to fuel production.

Robertson says that the company has just begun to optimize production in its diesel-secreting microbes, which currently yield fuel at a rate that is only 10 percent of the company's goal of 15,000 gallons per acre per year. _TechnologyReview
Full article from Photosynthesis Research detailing a planned expansion of the limits of photosynthesis

This approach to advanced biofuels does not require prime cropland, nor does it use food as a feedstock. It is not meant as a "magic bullet" replacement for all other forms of energy. It would be merely one piece of the power puzzle, as it should be.

Startups tend to exaggerate their goals and eventual capacities. But the wise investor learns to separate the boaster from the true performer. Joule has big ambitions, and is probably a decade or more before its time -- in terms of the overall energy picture.

Cheap shale gas can be converted into diesel via gasification and Fischer Tropsch (FT) catalysis much more quickly than Joule can get going, and in large quantities. Shale gas can also be converted to gasoline via Exxon Mobil's methanol to gasoline (MTG) process. And yet, in the big picture view of things, there is a place for ventures such as Joule.

But it will take a lot of time to develop. And societies must find a way to get rid of their energy starvationists along the way.

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Blogger yamahaeleven said...

Being way too lazy to look things up myself, was there mention of the capital costs? That equipment looked rather spendy, albeit experimental.

Thursday, 19 January, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

Right. Capital costs are far too high at this level of technology, for this to be scaled up.

A lot of innovation is needed at every step of the process -- both hardware and bioware.

Thursday, 19 January, 2012  
Blogger yamahaeleven said...

It certainly does look like bio-fuel technology is advancing at a nice clip, no doubt, reasonable capital cost schemes will come out, looks sooner than latter these days.

Malthusian doomsters look out!

Thursday, 19 January, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

The current very low price of natural gas puts competing forms of unconventional fuels and conventional and unconventional forms of power at an economic disadvantage.

But technology development is proceeding, so as the economics of energy changes, a lot of competing technologies should be ready.

Friday, 20 January, 2012  

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