This decade has seen the passing of scores, if not hundreds of startups claiming to have the fix for our petroleum dependence. So far, not a single one has proved competitive with gasoline or diesel fuel. So it’s not unreasonable to be cautious of the latest, Joule Biotechnologies, a company that says it will be producing fuel for around $50 per barrel (with government incentives) a couple years out.
Joule is at least evidence of a changing of the technological guard, though. Instead of relying on chemical conversion of biomass (corn, palm oil, wood and so forth), the company, which just emerged from stealth mode, focuses on synthetic biology. They claim to have biongineered an organism that uses photosynthesis to produce fuel. Just add sunlight and water.
In keeping with its sun-powered status, the system will look a bit like solar panels. The microorganism will be encased behind protective glass, probably to prevent outside contamination. A field of panels would funnel fuel to a central repository. According to the company, an acre of them will produce about 20,000 gallons of fuel a year, about ten times better than an acre of corn converted to ethanol.
The basic idea isn’t too far off from algae grown in closed bioreactors, but Joule, while remaining very secretive about exactly what it has, says it’s not working with algae. So maybe it’s a modified bacteria — an E Coli Frankenstein, perhaps, given new parts that cause it to split water to create hydrogen, which can then be combined with varying amounts of carbon and oxygen to create complex hydrocarbons.
The key to whether the idea works or not is whether this mystery microorganism can be kept functioning smoothly. Bioreactors are, unfortunately, quite expensive. That fact, combined with the difficulty of separating out the oil they produce, has kept algae from being a viable source for fuel. Joule can’t do anything to make glass and metal cheaper, so one of their major innovations has to be figuring out how to open a spout in the side of their bioreactor panel and drain off fairly pure fuel.
At the same time, they’ll be draining other substances, too. Taking another page from the algae playbook, Joule says it’s going to produce chemicals that it can sell separately from the fuel. There are plenty of chemicals that go for much higher prices than transportation fuel does, so this detail could be the other linchpin holding the economic plan together. But every added byproduct also adds another layer of complexity.
But while Joule is working to get all these details right — it says it will be producing at fairly significant scales in 2011 — expect more companies like it to pop up. Synthetic biology is the new frontier of green technology; in fact, the few details available on Joule bear more than a passing resemblance to what Craig Venter, a biotech celebrity, plans to do in a joint venture between his company, Synthetic Genomics, and Exxon. Just without the algae.