Joule Unlimited: 'Fuel from thin air' comes closer, clearer

August 23, 2010 |

In Massachusetts, the secretive Joule Unlimited (then known as Joule Biotechnologies) emerged late last year from “stealth mode” with the startling announcement that their technology could produce up to 15,000 gallons per acre (per year) of drop-in hydrocarbon fuels, using only sunlight, CO2 and (fresh, brackish or saline) water as inputs. The Solar Converter – including radical new micro-organism and a technology known as helioculture – is the heart of Joule’s IP.

Did it the announcement change everything? No. Will it change the biofuels competitive landscape? It already has, and conceptually contains those Four Horsemen of a Market Apocalyse that VC so dearly love: disruptive, scalable, competitive, protected technology.

Here was our early report on Joule

As outlined, the related technologies simultaneously solved the resource challenge known to some as “food vs fuel” (and to others as “soaring feedstock prices”), the infrastructure and product adoption challenges of ethanol and biodiesel, and had the kind of productivity that marked it for early commercialization. Joule fuel was reputed by its backers to be competitive with $30 oil.

But does it work?

The reaction

After the astonishment subsided, some criticism emerged from the biofuels community. What exactly was the organism? Hadn’t previous attempts to engineer a magic bug along Joule-like lines all failed? Where would all the CO2 come from? Would the company raise any real money? And why, carped some, is their so much fuss over, basically, a press release – that is, an undisclosed microorganism being operated at bench scale?

Joule: a year after

Almost a year has passed, and Joule has constructed and is now operating a pilot plant in Leander, Texas; they say they have demonstrated proof of concept on 10 renewable chemicals back in the lab they describe as “blendstock for end products”. The company changed its name to Joule Unlimited, and has placed itself on a path towards what it terms initial phase 1 commercialization in late 2011, which will start with a demonstration and then add, utilizing the solar-like modularity of the company’s technology to rapidly scale.

There still hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot parsed out in the media about Joule’s magic bug, and even less analysis of the overall Joule system. So the Digest spent some time with Joule CEO Bill Sims last week, and on the heels of our “Solar Biofuels” review from last Friday, here is what we have learned about Joule.

The disclosure or lack thereof regarding Joule’s magic bug

“We definitely want to communicate our thinking about disclosure,” Sims relates. “It is obvious we have engineered a phototroph to produce hydrocarbons. One way of thinking is that, by disclosing, we are simply enabling competition.”

Uh, what exactly is a phototrophe?

An organism that creates energy from sunlight, CO2 and inorganic materials  – traditionally through photosynthesis – like plants, algae and certain photosynthetic bacteria. The other type of organism – like humans, for example, can create energy only by consuming other organic material (plants, animals, etc etc). These are called heterotrophes.

Back to Joule

“But it is more than that,” Sims contends, It is Important not to focus on that piece – the platform organism to accomplish the task, or many organisms. the organism alone doesn’t get the job done. It’s the systematic approach: solar converter, bioprocessing, and the downstream systems that pull together the whole.

“The SolarConverter is a device unlike any ever developed. It provides water to the organism, captures CO2 and photons, managing therms, mixing the solution, product separation – water transfer and final separation facility in a continuous process extinguishing all photons.

“We want to disclose [the microorganism] in context of the overall process. Some time relatively soon, what we’re doing will become clear.”

What does it produce? Hydrocarbon fuels, for one, a/k/a “drop-in fuels”. But also — and initially, ethanol. It even has the capability to produce biodiesel. Plus the aforementioned renewable chemicals, which would be pursued in partnership with chemicals producers as the markets develop.

Joule vs competing technologies

“We’re at the vanguard of a new approach,” Sims said, referring to the class of technologies moving forward – most still at lab or concept stage – that do not utilize biomass as an intermediate for the production of renewable fuels, such as corn, sugar or algae. “Using a biomass intermediate, well the solutions that are out there perhaps a
a handful of companies might be successful with. But they are an alternative to petroleum-based fuels. We are a replacement.”

Is Joule’s fuel a biofuel at all?

Depends on how you define it. According to Sims, no. That’s because they do not utilize a biomass intermediate – processing fuel, for example, from algae or corn. Or even feeding sugar to a magic bug which produces a hydrocarbon molecule.

But in using a bio-based organism as the base for synthesizing fuels from sunlight, CO2 and water, Joule is very much making a biofuel. But it is a wholly different type of biofuel. For the photosynthetic properties of the organism are not being used to make biomass — and otherwise serve the energy and life needs of the organism — they are being directed to making fuel.

Jouel calls it a solar fuel. I think for now that the public is not quite ready for that radical a transition in terminology. We see it here in the radically dropped page views when we write about ‘solar liquid fuels’ or “electrofuels”. So, for the time being, we will call it a solar biofuel.

Is Joule’s magic bug a new form of life?

Well, first of all, there’s more than one magic bug. You see, Joule is not working off a magic bug, but a magic idea.

It’s not new life, but its pretty close. Some plant-enhancing strategies, which knock out or overexpress certain genes to enhance, shut down, or insert some new property into an organism. Joule does all that, too. But wait, as the Ginsu knife people would say, there’s more.

“Commencing with e.coli, they have used that well-studied bacteria as a base for layering on a series of genetic-based skills –  a skill for fixing carbon dioxide, a skill for grabbing water molecules, a skill for fixing photons – and a skill for converting those inputs – in a series of chemical transformations known as a metabolic pathway – into a hydrocarbon which can be used as a fuel. All while using e.coli’s system for preserving its own life and regulating its own systems.

It’s a little like a cell phone, in the end, pardon the pun. A cell phone sits on top of the human genome, taking advantage of human skills (the opposable thumb to hold it, the fingers to peck out keys, the intelligence to manipulate and understand, and the eyes to read outputs), but conferring a whole new range of skills and opportunities to the original organism.

But go a little further. Think of an embedded device – for example, an artificial limb. That not only confers new skills in the manner of the 6 Million Dollar Man (or replaces them), but is integrated with the existing system. That’s even more like what Joule’s magic bug is all about. Key thought: new tricks for an old, old dog like e.coli.

Of course, that’s the layman’s description. The synthetic biologist would describe it as a conferring photoautotrophic properties on a heterotrophic organism.

Note: If the technical description doesn’t make you run for the hills, we have some more detailed discussion of Joule’s magic bug as an appendix to this article.

Is it solar, or is it bio?

Bio, for sure, but with some attributes of solar. First, it converts energy directly from the sun, not unlike solar systems – but unlike traditional biofuels or wind energy, which use an intermediate. It has some other more interesting attributes of solar – namely, modularity and scale of the Joule solar converter. You add it on, in many ways like a series of solar panels. Only, unlike solar, it does not only consume sunlight, it consumes CO2 and water.

Oh, no, we’ll run out of fresh water

Glad you asked. No we won’t. Joule’s system is comfortable with fresh, brackish or saline water.

Oh no, we’ll run out of CO2

According to climate scientists, not a big problem. Joule’s technology misses out on a Nirvana of biotechnology – the design of a system that can achieve high productivity based on ambient CO2 from the atmosphere. But it draws on waste CO2 – from cement plants, coal-fired power, ethanol facilities, for example. Any emitter who is looking to convert a problem into a monetary opportunity.

OK, is this a carbon conversion story?

“We’re not a carbon conversion story,” says Sims. “We’re a fuels and chemicals company. There is plenty of volume of waste CO2, but we’re not saving the world from CO2. But there are a lot of locations – in particular, we’ve seen a large land availability, as we’ve done our homework. We can’t say there’s not a challenge – for example, water availability. But desert areas may have brackish or saline aquifers.

Scaling and funding

We have a clear differentiator, Sims adds. “We can show at small scale what’s feasible at large scale, from day 1. We don’t need a large scale facility – no gigantic proof of concept – because of the modularity of the design.” Funding? “There is plenty of funding for great IRR.”

We talked about the recent surge in IPO activity in the sector. Is Joule seeing the same rise in interest?

“We’re seeing far more interest from investors. A year ago we announced, and did our own outreach to large handful of institutions – at that time, more of a high level overview, including banks and the like. Very few banks would talk about liquid energy. In 12 months, that has changed, and there are countless companies circling around, wanting to be on the radar. With other institutions, there is absolutely more activity. They’ve gotten over the wounds from corn ethanol. It’s like: “that’s over”.  These guys read the paper, too, and they see the demand coming from airlines and the military. They understand that the failure of the initial approaches is not a reason to stay out of a market. The technology improved, it took people some time to get over what happened, but now there’s a demand.”

The economics

Aside from some limited public guidance, along the lines of “competitive with $30 oil,” we don’t have much to go on. We do know that sunlight is free, brackish water abundant at virtually no cost, and with waste CO2 the competition is in many cases carbon capture and storage systems which cost $40 per ton and up. So the feedstock costs are minimal, although there may be some nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other micro-nutrient costs in there – that’s not entirely clear based on the limited disclosures. But those are fairly minimal on a per-gallon basis in competing micro-organism systems.

What we are left with is land, and the capital costs for construction of the slar converters, plus maintenance. We’ll have to see the engineering to know more, but with Joule raising $30 million this spring with investors who would have seen the detailed costs, there’s little doubt that their pro-forms are solid if the productivity they aim for can be sustainably achieved.

Joule’s progress – what’s is understood and misunderstood?

“We know we haven’t said much,” Sims says. “And that some people believe we are using processes that have been proven not to work. In terms of those processes, we’ve taken to heart the NREL data and research from other people in the field. and we agree with it. We took a different approach.

“We also heard the same 100,000 gallons per acre as everyone else, and we understand why people say what they say about 15,000 gallons per acre. But we already at 10,000 gallons per acre per year with ethanol and that is 4 times what biomass can achieve using the old approaches.

“We haven’t said we’ve done it, its all over. We have only stated what is possible and hired the best to achieve our goals. And we have an unbeatable team, and an outstanding science advisory board.”

An Appendix: a look at Joule’s magic bug, in a little more (technical) detail.

Warning: We’ll try to keep it fairly simple, but this material is not drop-dead simple for those uninitiated in a little synthetic biology.

Our source: Joule’s July 2009 patent application for “ENGINEERED LIGHT-HARVESTING ORGANISMS“. Also, see their August 2009 patent app for “HYPERPHOTOSYNTHETIC ORGANISMS

Some background on photosynthesis and its limitations.

“Photosynthesis, as naturally evolved, is an extremely complex system with numerous and poorly understood feedback loops, control mechanisms, and process inefficiencies. This complicated system presents likely insurmountable obstacles to either one-factor-at-a-time or global optimization approaches.

“Existing photoautotrophic organisms are poorly suited for industrial bioprocessing. In particular, said organisms have a slow doubling time (3-72 hrs) compared to industrialized heterotrophic organisms such as Escherichia coli (20 minutes).

In addition, techniques for genetic manipulation (knockout, over-expression of transgenes via integration or episomic plasmid propagation) are inefficient, time-consuming, laborious, or non-existent.

“Given these shortcomings, the present disclosure identifies pathways and mechanisms to confer photoautotrophic properties to a heterotrophic organism. The resultant engineered synthetophototrophic cell or organism will uniquely enable efficient conversion of carbon dioxide and light into biomass and carbon-based products of interest.

Also see our Digest summary: To fix carbon, food, energy: fix RuBisCO (the mother of all biofuels challenges)

The overall picture

What you are going to read is the process of conferring all those properties on e.coli, or other candidate organisms – needed to grab water molecules, harvest and fix CO2, harvest and fix photons, and commence the metabolical transformation of energy to chemicals, that ultimately result in a hydrocarbon. All the while, optimizing and minimizing the steps to eliminate inefficiencies that exist in actual photosynthetic organisms.

The base for the organism

“The non-pathogenic lab adapted E. coli strains K-12 serves as the parental strain for subsequent genetic manipulation. Alternately E. coli strains W or B can be used.

The light supply

Light is delivered through a variety of mechanisms, including natural illumination (sunlight), standard incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen bulbs, or via propagation in specially-designed illuminated growth chambers.

The CO2 supply

Carbon dioxide is supplied via inclusion of solid media supplements (i.e., sodium bicarbonate) or as a gas via its distribution into the growth incubator. Most experiments are performed using concentrated carbon dioxide gas, at concentrations between 10 and 30%, which is directly bubbled into the growth media at velocities sufficient to provide mixing for the organisms. When concentrated carbon dioxide gas is utilized, the gas originates in pure form from commercially-available cylinders, or preferentially from concentrated sources including offgas from coal plants, refineries, cement production facilities, natural gas facilities, breweries, and others.

The original organism, or organisms

“Organisms belonging to any of the three categories of organisms listed below can be converted into a synthetophototroph and used for production of carbon-based products of interest. The first category includes preferred organisms such as Escherichia coli. The second category includes good alternative organisms such as Acetobacter aceti, Bacillus subtilis, Clostridium ljungdahlii, Clostridium thermocellum, Penicillium chrysogenum, Pichia pastoris, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Pseudomonas fluorescens, and Zymomonas mobilis. The third category includes all potential heterotrophic organisms (also known as heterotrophs), typically single-celled microorganisms, but also includes cell suspensions or cultures derived from multicellular organisms.”

The light capture and harvest

A variety of microorganisms are known to encode light-activated proton translocation systems. In the present invention, one or more forms of light-activated proton pumps are functionally expressed in E. coli or other host cells to generate a proton gradient that is converted into ATP via an endogenous or exogenous ATPase.

The fermentation into hydrocarbons

The production and isolation of products from synthetophototrophic organisms can be enhanced by employing specific fermentation techniques. An essential element to maximizing production while reducing costs is increasing the percentage of the carbon source that is converted to such products. Carbon atoms, during normal cellular lifecycles, go to cellular functions including producing lipids, saccharides, proteins, and nucleic acids. Reducing the amount of carbon necessary for non-product related activities can increase the efficiency of output production.

The release of the fuels

“In a preferred embodiment, the cell is engineered such that the final product is released from the cell. In embodiments where the final product is released from the cell, a continuous process can be employed. In this approach, a reactor with organisms producing desirable products can be assembled in multiple ways. In one embodiment, the reactor is operated in bulk continuously, with a portion of media removed and held in a less agitated environment such that an aqueous product will self-separate out with the product removed and the remainder returned to the fermentation chamber. In embodiments where the product does not separate into an aqueous phase, media is removed and appropriate separation techniques (e.g., chromatography, distillation, etc.) are employed.”

“In an alternate embodiment, the product is not secreted by the cells. In this embodiment, a batch-fed fermentation approach is employed. In such cases, cells are grown under continued exposure to inputs (light, water, and carbon dioxide) as specified above until the reaction chamber is saturated with cells and product. A significant portion to the entirety of the culture is removed, the cells are lysed, and the products are isolated by appropriate separation techniques (e.g., chromatography, distillation, filtration, centrifugation, etc.).”

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