Joule wins key patent for direct conversion of CO2 to hydrocarbon fuels

June 16, 2015 |

joule-unlimitedThe story of its process, timelines, pathways becomes more and more clear

In Massachusetts, Joule, the pioneer of liquid fuels from recycled CO2, announced the issuance of an additional patent on the direct, continuous production of hydrocarbon fuels – extending its ability to target the highest-value molecules of the petroleum distillation process and generate them on demand from sunlight and CO2.

It offers a rare opportunity for a look at the company, which began a strategic retreat back into stealth mode around 2012 and only recently has begun to be more active in its communications.

The Joule backstory

Joule’s solar process broke ground by using engineered photosynthetic bacteria as catalysts to directly produce and secrete targeted fuel molecules in a continuous, single-step conversion process. By design, the process requires no use of biomass feedstocks or agricultural land. Its main inputs of sunlight, waste CO2 and brackish or sea water make the process well suited for wide-ranging geographies.

The Joule system - a scaled process, as of October 2014, in Hobbs, NM.

The Joule system – a scaled process, as of October 2014, in Hobbs, NM.

Joule effectively reverses combustion through the use of solar energy — instead of venting CO2 as a by-product of combustion, it applies engineered biocatalysts to continuously convert waste CO2 directly into renewable fuels such as ethanol or hydrocarbons for diesel, jet fuel and gasoline.


Joule is privately held and has raised over $200 million in funding to date, led by Flagship Ventures. The company operates from Bedford, Massachusetts and The Hague, The Netherlands with production operations in Hobbs, New Mexico.


The patent

U.S. Patent #9,034,629, issued on May 19, covers both the cyanobacterium and the process for directly converting CO2 into medium-chain alkanes, which are the molecular basis of diesel, jet fuel and gasoline.

Impact? This latest issuance complements Joule’s existing patents on the production of long-chain alkanes, ethanol and multiple chemicals, protecting the company’s unique capability to produce a full breadth of drop-in products without biomass feedstocks or complex refining. Moreover, because the process consumes waste CO2 emissions, the resulting fuels can enable carbon-neutral transportation by supplanting their petroleum-derived counterparts.

Why is there skepticism about Joule’s technology?

At any industry gathering, the room divides into passionate Joule supporters and deep skeptics.

“Obviously this is a totally novel process,” notes Joule EVP Tom Einar Jensen, “where we are converting CO2 directly to a product, as opposed to nature’s indirect ways. And, we’re claiming to be very efficient in this process, and it is understandably hard to wrap your head around the idea until you see it work in practice.”

“Also, these innovations take time before they materialize at any level that makes commercial sense. There are companies including Joule that have claimed productivity levels and timelines that haven’t materialized. If you have provided promises on timelines and haven’t delivered, you have to show what stands up to scrutiny.”

“And when it comes to demonstration and visibility, Joule has been inactive on the communications front and is just now resurfacing. We have to accept the fact that people will ask tough questions and we have to have answers for that.

It really is about a process of education, and one of the first challenges we have is to show that it is not magic, it’s biology that Joule’s technology is based on, and then demonstrate that we have a viable process.

Digging into the patent.

By the way, here it is, that patent. Three things immediately to note, of interest.

An empire of products

First, Joule is claiming protection over an empire of products that could be made from this process — not just fuels, but an array of renewable chemicals, including:

terephthalate, PDO, BDO, polyols, PHA, PHB, ethylene, acrylate, most of the organics acids, isoprene, caprolactam, DHA, aspartic acid, sorbitol, ascorbate, ascorbic acid, isopentenol, lanosterol, omega-3 DHA, lycopene, itaconate, butadiene, succinate, citrate, citric acid, glutamate, malate, HPA, THF, carotenoids, isoprenoids, itaconic acid; 7-ADCA, polyketides, statins, terpenes, peptides, and steroids.

Basically, just about any major chemical or plastic you could imagine, and a host of pharma products as well.

We asked Joule about its ambitions in those areas — given the higher values for those products, but the risk of diversion of focus in pursuing them.

“Our main focus is the fuel space,” said Jensen. “We have the capacity to extend out technology to higher value products, and that is something we are open to discussing. But if we were to go down that path, it would most likely be a separate proposition in a way that wouldn’t distract us from fuels.”

An empire of organisms used as biocatalysts

We also see, in the patent write-up, hundreds of organisms named as potential host organisms which can be:

“transformed to produce a product of interest — not just the little critters but large-scale plants such as Arabidopsis, Jatropha, Miscanthus, Panicum, Phalaris, Populus, Saccharum, Salix, Simmondsia and Zea.”

Zea, that’s your friend corn. Populus, that’s a poplar tree. Simmondsia – that’s the jojoba tree. Panicum, you probably know as switchgrass. Phalaris, that’s canary-grass. Saccharum – you probably decoded from “sacch” as sugarcane, and you’d be right. Salix — that’s willow. You probably know jatropha and miscanthus by their scientific names, if you read the Digest from time to time. Bottom line, a selection of just about every major, fast-growing source of xylose or glucose out there, excepting perhaps sweet sorghum or arundo.

The roster of photoautotrophic organisms include algae, cyanobacteria, green-sulfur bacteria, green non-sulfur bacteria, purple sulfur bacteria, and purple non-sulfur bacteria, and some archaea. It’s an array of microvarmints representing tens of thousands, if not millions, of individual strains.

We asked Joule about their “hardware” of the processing system itself and their “software” biocatalysts.

“To use your analogy,” said Jensen, “the hardware includes the CO2 intake and the processing platform, and that would not change regardless of which product we might be producing. The ‘software’ is primarily the biocatalyst (the microorganism, and the flow of nutrients and inputs according to its needs).”

The conversion process

We can glean just a little more about the pathways employed by the Joule process, from the patent submission.

An engineered cyanobacterium…wherein the thioesterase converts C(.sub.8-12) acyl-ACP to C(.sub.8-12) fatty acid, wherein the carboxylic acid reductase converts C(.sub.8-12) fatty acid to C(.sub.8-12) aldehyde, wherein the alkane deformylative monooxygenase converts C(.sub.8-12) aldehyde to C(.sub.7-11) alkane.

OK, you’re not a biologist or a chemist, and you have no idea what that means, and it’s annoying. Relax, we’ll translate into English.

Bottom line, it’s an alkane (think diesel, for example), made biologically from a protein which cyanobacteria already knows how to make.

(Not that cyanobacteria always make all the proteins they know how to make. Just like a cooks doesn’t always make all the meals they’ve been trained to create. But they know how to do it, and we “switch on the pathway” when we order a meal at a restaurant.)

In the world of little critters, generally speaking every organism on earth has coding to make a huge number of proteins and it is a matter of switching the right code on and the right code off, and there may be some optimization of the pathway. Sort of like Jack Nicholson trying to get wheat toast in Five Easy Pieces.

What’s a fatty acid, you ask? What’s an aldehyde? For the former, think olive oil, or Mazola, or butter — all loaded with fatty acids. An aldehyde — think fragrances; many fragrances are aldehydes.

There are a number of organic chemistry processes to reduce make aldehydes from fatty acids, or reduce aldehydes to alkanes — here’s an example of training a microorganism to do it. In this case, via enzymes produced from the codes embedded in the “new and improved” genetic structure. Everything above with an “-ase” on the end, that’s your enzyme or enzyme cocktail.

So, we could rewrite the pathway, more simply if more generally, as:

Using embedded enzymes to convert a popular protein to a fat, the fat into a fragrance, the fragrance into a fuel. All inside the one organism, which then secrets the fuel, and starts over again.

More on that patent here.

The word from Joule

“We believe that we can deliver a truly carbon-neutral solution for the mobility sector, and our fast-growing intellectual property portfolio is a reflection of the many innovations we have achieved to make this possible,” said Joule CEO Serge Tchuruk.  “Our process can capture and recycle CO2, and tailor the output to the most widely used transportation fuels on the market today. This technology will become increasingly attractive as governments and companies around the world set carbon reduction goals heading into COP 21 this December.”

More on the story.

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