Portrait of a Transformative Technology: Joule Unlimited

June 3, 2010 |

This week, the Digest is accepting nominations for the 10 Most Transformative Technologies of 2010, and subscriber voting will commence next week. In today’s profile, we look at Joule Unlimited as an example of technologies that produce “fuel from thin air” – that is, direct conversion of sunlight, CO2 and water into renewable fuels, utilizing micro-organisms but not creating an intermediate biomass.

Progress: In April, Joule Biotechnologies announced the closing of a $30 million funding round,  and a name change to Joule Unlimited intended to reflect its focus on the “widespread replacement of fossil fuels…while also reflecting the virtually unlimited potential of our transformative process,” according to CEO Bill Sims. Flagship Ventures Managing Director David Berry, on the sidelines at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, did not disclose the identity of the company’s strategic investors but confirmed that Flagship intends to remain the sole venture capital firm invested in the company and its technology.

Also in April, Joule was selected by MIT’s Technology Review as one of the world’s ten most important emerging technologies for 2010.

The company’s pilot plant in Leander is now built. Joule has commenced testing ethanol, and will follow with diesel in a separate facility on the same site by year’s end.

Leander, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country and about 25 miles north of the state capital at Austin. According to a report in the Leander Community Impact, “The company will build facilities on 5 acres near the city’s sewage treatment plant off of FM 2243. Kirk Clennan, the city’s director of economic development, said the company will employ roughly 15 people.” The company had previously established a laboratory in San Marcos and said it intended to commence construction of its pilot plant in the first quarter of next year.

Technology: Joule’s Helioculture process mixes sunlight and CO2 with highly engineered photo synthetic organisms, which are designed to secrete ethanol, diesel or other products.

However, unlike algae and other current biomass-derived fuels, the Helioculture process does not produce biomass, requires no agricultural feedstock and minimizes land and water use. It is also direct-to-product, so there is no lengthy extraction and/or refinement process.

The breakthrough was made possible by the discovery of unique genes coding for enzymatic mechanisms that enable the direct synthesis of both alkane and olefin molecules – the chemical composition of diesel. Production was achieved at lab scale, with pilot development slated for early 2011.

Because its organisms are being engineered to directly secrete hydrocarbon molecules, Joule will avoid costly steps such as large-scale biomass collection, energy-intensive degradation, or other downstream refinement. In addition, Joule’s process requires just marginal, non-arable land, no crops and no fresh water.

Business: Joule is pioneering a transformative technology that we believe supersedes existing and emergent cellulosic or algal biomass-derived fuel approaches by employing genetically engineered photosynthetic organisms that directly convert sunlight and waste CO2 to fuel and chemical molecules. Our proprietary Helioculture™ technology is being designed to produce liquid energy in the form of ethanol and diesel that will target the worldwide need for renewable, clean transportation fuels at a price expected to meet or beat market pricing. We also may create a whole range of petroleum-derived chemical products to be commercialized via partnerships with industry leaders.

Model: Options for Joule will range from direct sale of liquid energy and chemical products, to partnerships and joint ventures with existing market leaders and CO2 producers, to OEM and licensing arrangements enabled by the company’s intellectual property platform and know-how. As a result, the strategy over the short-term will be to continue to drive the technology towards commercialization and let partnership discussions and access to capital dictate the best way to create shareholder value. Joule has the advantage of a team of seasoned professionals with proven experience creating significant shareholder value in multi-business unit models.

Past milestones:
1. Achieved significant progress in the development of Helioculture™ technology and a proprietary, genome engineering toolkit, and important progress addressing the technical challenges of scalable reactor and large-scale process design.
2. Achieved first long-term ethanol production in SolarConverter™ system, and first outdoor production.
3. Achieved cellular production of diesel in the lab.

Future milestones:

1. Continue gains in productivity and yield for Joule ethanol and Joule diesel liquid energy.
2. Continue optimization of our SolarConverter systems.
3. Commence pilot plant operations for Joule ethanol and diesel liquid energy.

Metrics: Cost targets are $30 bble for diesel and $50 for ethanol.  Productivity targets are 15,000 gal/acre/year for diesel and 25,000 gal/acre/year for ethanol.

Joule Biotechnology quotable quotes:

“Joule’s Helioculture™ technology has a number of distinct advantages. Relative to fossil fuels or to biomass-derived methods, it has a Direct-to-Product™ process, thus eliminating costly middle steps such as fermentation, large-scale biomass removal or other down-stream refinement. In addition, Joule’s process has the capability of achieving up to 10X more efficient land use versus biomass-derived methods without the need for agricultural land or clean water. By eliminating raw material feedstock requirements, the technology also removes a costly component that can be subject to significant fluctuations in price and availability. The Helioculture™ technology is being designed to offer a high net energy yield, to be highly modular and scalable and to provide a technology platform capable of making multiple products.”

The 10 Most Transformative Technologies of 2010

The Digest will accept nominations all this week for “the 10 Most Transformative Technologies for 2010″ and we will conduct a subscriber ballot next week, announcing our winners on June 12th. To submit a technology for the ballot, write [email protected] with: a 50 word description of the technology and a URL to link to more information. Universities, national labs, and commercial developers are welcome to compete. Your technology of choice must be proven out at least at bench-scale. This is a global competition.

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