Sun + carbon dioxide + water = new liquid fuel

Massachusetts-based biofuel pioneer, Joule Unlimited, Inc., claims it can produce “Liquid Fuel from the Sun”. According to the company, the high-productivity potential of its production process could represent a breakthrough in sustainable fuel production, producing diesel in unprecedented volumes with a fraction of the land use incurred by current methods.
Sun + carbon dioxide + water = new liquid fuel

Joule Unlimited has revealed that a peer review published by Photosynthesis Research shows that it can achieve direct, continuous conversion of solar energy to renewable diesel at 15,000 gallons/acre/year, “leapfrogging biomass-dependent approaches and eliminating the economic and environmental disadvantages of fossil fuels”.

Joule's process uses its patented Helioculture platform which converts sunlight and waste carbon dioxide directly into liquid fuels in a continuous process. In addition, the company says its analysis counters prior assumptions about the viability of industrial photosynthesis, addressing the barriers overcome by Joule to achieve unprecedented photosynthetic efficiency up to 50 times greater than the maximum potential of any process requiring biomass.

"Joule was formed not to improve upon existing biofuel processes, but to create a new and transformational process altogether," said Bill Sims, President and CEO of Joule. "We have channelled photosynthesis, the most productive energy-capture process on earth, at efficiencies previously thought unattainable”.

Breaking the biomass link

Sims goes on to say that his company has also eliminated dependence on biomass, what he describes as “the Achilles heel of biofuel production”, and the prohibitive costs, processing and logistics it entails. “The result is a new paradigm for renewable fuel production with unrivalled productivity targets that are fully supported by actual, measurable gains we've achieved at every layer – from photon capture through product synthesis, secretion, separation and collection," says Sims.

The article published by Photosynthesis Research, entitled "A New Dawn for Industrial Photosynthesis”, quantitatively affirms the advantages of Joule's direct conversion process as compared to the indirect production of fuel from biomass, including algae. Though both processes aim to convert solar energy into fuel, the latter method requires the costly culturing, harvesting and processing of algal biomass – a multi-step intermediate stage that Joule's process avoids. Moreover, Joule's process directly yields hydrocarbons that are fungible with existing diesel infrastructure, unlike the biodiesel product that is produced from algal oil.

"In contrast to research of the past, we have shown that photosynthesis is the superior platform technology for direct, renewable fuel production at the volumes and costs required to supplant fossil fuels," said Dan Robertson, PhD, co-author of the article and Senior Vice President of Biological Sciences at Joule. "The engineering of a photosynthetic microorganism to directly synthesize an infrastructure-compatible product, and continuously secrete that product, represents a landmark in industrial bioprocessing. The process technology is equally unique in that a highly-efficient, low-cost SolarConverter system enables unprecedented productivities, as fully explained in our analysis and now being demonstrated at pilot scale."

"Joule has already delivered on its vision as the first commercial effort to combine the required biological advances with radical improvement in cost and robustness of a system for industrial production," said George Church, PhD, renowned geneticist and Chairman of Joule's technical advisory board, who also contributed to the article. "This is the holistic systems approach that will finally capitalize on solar energy for liquid fuel production at meaningful, economical scale."

Nonetheless, National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientist Philip Pienkos warns that while Joule's technology is exciting, it remains unproven, and told the Daily Mail newspaper that the company’s claims of efficiency are undercut by difficulties they could have just collecting the fuel their organism is producing.

Time will tell whether Joule can overcome this hurdle.

Founded in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs, Joule is privately held and headquartered in Cambridge (Massachusetts, US).

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Joule Unlimited

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