Joule’s quest for fuels from CO2, sunlight and water

July 3, 2014 |

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Can it really be done? A Tony Stark-like quest for fuels and chemicals secreted by a microbe that lives on a diet of CO2, water and sunlight?

We look anew at Joule’s quest, and its progress. 

From Massachusetts, word arrived from Joule this week that the EPA has favorably reviewed the company’s Microbial Commercial Activity Notice for Joule’s first commercial ethanol-producing catalyst. This clears the catalyst for commercial use at the company’s demonstration plant in New Mexico, the company says.

There’s been quite a bit of congratulatory chirping on the internet — and Joule was moved to put out a press release.

“The favorable review of our first MCAN is an important step,” said Paul Snaith, President and CEO of Joule. “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.”

Given that Joule, by and large, gives J.D. Salinger a decent run for its money in terms of avoiding the limelight, even a relatively benign statement from Paul Snaith inspires us in Digestville to look into it.

In doing so, let’s look at two questions.

First, what exactly is a Microbial Commercial Activity Notice and should we all share Joule’s enthusiasm over it? Second, what’s up with the company perhaps most closely associated with the production of fuels directly from CO2, sunlight and water? They of the world of “No biomass, no petroleum, no kidding.”

More about Joule and its MCAN

First, what about that Microbial Commercial Activity Notice, which is known as an MCAN amongst the acronym-adoring sections of the Digesterati?

On the one hand, this marks the first time that EPA has allowed the commercial use of a modified cyanobacterium. 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.

On the other hand, MCANs are as rare as blood diamonds. Only 66 applications since 1998 have been filed — though the pace has quickened recently, with 25 filed since 2012.  Joule itself filed in 2012 for commercial use of a modified Synechococcus, and received just about the only knock-back, picking up a consent order serving “to limit the production, processing, distribution in commerce, use, and disposal of new chemical substances that raise health or environmental concerns, pending receipt of required information.”

More about Joule’s latest declaration of activity

On the whole, Joule’s demystified quite a bit in recent months. In this article, there’s lots of actual photos available at jouleunlimited.com and more visualizations of their systems.

But mysteries continue — as probably they should, given the company’s unique and difficult quest.

The MCANs itself don’t reveal much about Joule — the 2012 notice did confirm that they have been working with the above-mentioned Synecocchus — which is a gram-negative cyanobacteria. Probably a strain of Synecocchus elongatus.

The Joule Quest

But what exactly does that mean?

Bottom line, Joule is trying to make a robust, economically viable strain of an alkanogen, alkeneogen or ethanologen. If you’re wondering exactly what makes that a) interesting and b) hard to do, I’ll try to explain.

Any insertyourtargetproduct-ogen is a rare and precious bird in the biofuels and chemicals trade. Reasonably well known from nature are methanogens and acetogens. These are organisms that secrete acetic acid or methane as part of their metabolic cycle. All humans, to make the comparison, are sweatogens. You labor, and your body secretes a sweat. Among mammals, almost all mothers secrete mother’s milk.

In this way, an ethanologen, alkeneogen or alkanogen is an organism that sweats ethanol, alkenes or alkanes. All you basically have to do is collect it, like milking a cow.

Contrast that with most biomass-based enterprises, where you grow an organism, then harvest it, crush it, extract the useful material and discard the waste. Sort of like the slaughterhouse.

Making Joule even more interesting — its organisms are trained to sweat diesel-range alkanes, or chemically high-value alkenes like ethylene or propylene. Or alcohols like ethanol. Now, if you think back to wild fraternity parties where, in the aftermath, you feel like you have to sweat out the excess alcohol in a steam bath — well, that’s not entirely off the mark. Only this is done at a microscopic level. Synecocchus are so small that you can find thousands of them swimming around in a glassful of water you might pull out of a river.

And, perhaps most remarkably of all, Joule’s microorganism’s don’t require sugar as an input, or any kind of finished biomass-like material. Like the highly-trained microbes at, say INEOS Bio or LanzaTech, they can get their carbon in gas form. In the case of Joule’s organisms, they use CO2, sunlight and water as the most plentiful inputs.

Plenty of organisms use those same inputs — all photosynthetic microalgae, for example. But you can’t milk them like a cow. You have to crush them.

Among all companies out there — generally speaking just Algenol and Joule have gone down this path of creating an ethanologen that you can milk. Joule has taken it one step further by aiming for an alkanogen. That is, a milkable microbe that makes diesel or jet fuel directly from CO2, sunlight and water.

Which is why just about everyone’s ears perk up when you utter the magic word: “Joule”. But a number of observers as generally dismissed the exercise as basically a fool’s errand, somewhere between hype and downright dangerous BS of the kind that gives synthetic biology a bad name. Here in Digestville, we’re not in that camp, though the news flow has been sketchy enough to encourage both the skeptics and the believers.

Joule, visualized

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Joule, illustrated

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What’s going on inside the Magic Temple

What’s going on behind the scenes in the world of Joule? Generally, the work falls in four areas.

1. Getting the organism to over-produce the alkane, alkene or alcohol of interest.

2. Getting a cost efficient photobioreactor design.

3. Controlling heat. Systems heat up in the day, when the sun is out. Cooling costs money.

4. Looking at ways to extend an organism’s productivity from “daylight hours” to “round the clock”.

Of all of the four, perhaps the fourth is the most fascinating and elusive of all., Because they would have to endow a photosynthetic organism with heterotrophic properties — train it to extract energy from sunlight by day, then extract if from sugar by night. That’s known as mixotrophic properties, and such organisms do exists. But they don’t, er, happen to naturally secrete diesel and jet fuel.

But there’s been work done, interestingly including Joule, and synecocchus elongatus.  Last yearf we reported on efforts out of UC Davis to convert an obligate photoautotroph to a heterotroph is desirable for more efficient, economical and controllable production systems. More on that here.

Joule’s “carbon based products of interest”

Let’s just say that Joule has a broad array of molecules of interest. In recent submissions they have cited:

ethanol, propanol, isopropanol, butanol, fatty alcohols, fatty acid esters, ethyl esters, wax esters; hydrocarbons and alkanes such as propane, octane, diesel, Jet Propellant 8 (JP8); polymers such as terephthalate, 1,3-propanediol, 1,4-butanediol, polyols, Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), poly-beta-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), acrylate, adipic acid, ε-caprolactone, isoprene, caprolactam, rubber; commodity chemicals such as lactate, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), 3-hydroxypropionate, γ-valerolactone, lysine, serine, aspartate, aspartic acid, sorbitol, ascorbate, ascorbic acid, isopentenol, lanosterol, omega-3 DHA, lycopene, itaconate, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene, propylene, succinate, citrate, citric acid, glutamate, malate, 3-hydroxypropionic acid (HPA), lactic acid, THF, gamma butyrolactone, pyrrolidones, hydroxybutyrate, glutamic acid, levulinic acid, acrylic acid, malonic acid; specialty chemicals such as carotenoids, isoprenoids, itaconic acid; pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical intermediates such as 7-aminodeacetoxycephalosporanic acid (7-ADCA)/cephalosporin, erythromycin, polyketides, statins, paclitaxel, docetaxel, terpenes, peptides, steroids, omega fatty acids and other such suitable products of interest. Such products are useful in the context of biofuels, industrial and specialty chemicals, as intermediates used to make additional products, such as nutritional supplements, nutraceuticals, polymers, paraffin replacements, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

They appear to have overlooked kryptonite and vibranium, but not much else.

Joule’s patent app stream

To monitor their progress on other fronts, let look at their recent patent apps.

Photobioreactor With A Thermal System, And Methods of Using The Same

Application number: 20140099706

Abstract: The invention relates to a photobioreactor system for a phototrophic microorganism, and culture medium therefor, comprising a reactor chamber and a thermal system.

Filed: September 13, 2013

What it’s all about? They’re working here on reducing the cost of managing heat.

Methods and Compositions for the Extracellular Transport of Biosynthetic Hydrocarbons and Other Molecules

Application number: 20140093923

Abstract: The present disclosure identifies methods and compositions for modifying photoautotrophic organisms as hosts, such that the organisms efficiently convert carbon dioxide and light into hydrocarbons, e.g., n-alkanes and n-alkenes, wherein the n-alkanes are secreted into the culture medium via recombinantly expressed transporter proteins. In particular, the use of such organisms for the commercial production of n-alkanes and related molecules is contemplated.

Filed: October 17, 2013

What it’s all about? They’re working here on teaching the organism to secrete more product faster and in ways easier to collect.

Methods and Compositions for Producing Alkenes of Various Chain Length

Application number: 20140038255

Abstract: The NonA alkene synthase in Synechococcus sp. displays selective synthesis of 1-nonadecene. Heterologous recombination of a domain, i.e. the acyl binding domain, with other acyl binding proteins, affects acyl substrate chain-length binding selectivity and therefore the chain-length of the synthesized 1-alkenes. Compositions and methods are provided to selectively synthesize 1-alkenes of various chain lengths.

Filed: October 7, 2013

What it’s all about? They’re working here on getting Synecocchus to produce alkenes – improtant for the chemical markets.

Methods and Compositions for the Recombinant Biosynthesis of N-Alkanes

Application number: 20140005439

Abstract: The present disclosure identifies methods and compositions for modifying photoautotrophic organisms as hosts, such that the organisms efficiently convert carbon dioxide and light into n-alkanes, and in particular the use of such organisms for the commercial production of n-alkanes and related molecules.

Filed: June 10, 2013

What it’s all about? They’re working here on the core technology of producing alkanes like propane, ethane, and so on. Think diesel.

The bottom line

They’re still working on the bioreactor design, as far as we can tell — shaking costs out of the system. Meanwhile, training the microbe to make interesting chemicals, the alkenes. And continuing to improve the alkane flow. All the while investigating the development of a 24/7 organism, or set of them.

Looks like we are some distance from a commercially scalable system. But my goodness, they’re making a lot of progress. Just one successful company in this space — well, that will rock the world.

More about Joule: The company is privately held and has raised over $160 million in funding to date, led by Flagship Ventures. They operate from Bedford, Massachusetts and The Hague, The Netherlands, with production operations in Hobbs, New Mexico. More about the venture is available here: www.jouleunlimited.com.

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