Monday, July 27, 2009

The Biofuel Breakthrough to End All Biofuel Breakthroughs?

I'm called a cornucopian in the subject of our planet's energy matters; however, Joule Biotechnologies, you guys take the cake. These guys could be geniuses or fools... a process, apparently, that can make 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre, per year, and is supposedly cost-competitive with $50 oil. Is this too good to be true?

Read below or assimilate the full info. here.


Joule Biotechnologies grows genetically engineered microorganisms in specially designed photobioreactors. The microorganisms use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels (such as diesel or components of gasoline). The organisms excrete the fuel, which can then be collected using conventional chemical-separation technologies.

If the new process, which has been demonstrated in the laboratory, works as well on a large scale as Joule Biotechnologies expects, it would be a marked change for the biofuel industry. Conventional, corn-grain-based biofuels can supply only a small fraction of the United States' fuel because of the amount of land, water, and energy needed to grow the grain. But the new process, because of its high yields, could supply all of the country's transportation fuel from an area the size of the Texas panhandle. "We think this is the first company that's had a real solution to the concept of energy independence," says Bill Sims, CEO and president of Joule Biotechnologies. "And it's ready comparatively soon."

The company plans to build a pilot-scale plant in the southwestern U.S. early next year, and it expects to produce ethanol on a commercial scale by the end of 2010. Large-scale demonstration of hydrocarbon-fuels production would follow in 2011.

[...]

The new approach would also be a big improvement over cellulose-based biofuels. Cellulosic materials, such as grass and wood chips, could yield far more fuel per acre than corn, and recent studies suggest these fuel sources could replace about one-third of the fossil fuels currently used for transportation in the United States. But replacing all fossil fuels with cellulose-based biofuels
could be a stretch, requiring improved growing practices and a vast improvement
in fuel economy.

Algae-based biofuels come closest to Joule's technology, with potential yields of 2,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre; yet even so, the new process would represent an order of magnitude improvement. What's more, for the best current algae fuels technologies to be competitive with fossil fuels, crude oil would have to cost over $800 a barrel says Philip Pienkos, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. Joule claims that its process will be competitive with crude oil at $50 a barrel. In recent weeks, oil has sold for $60 to $70 a barrel.

Joule's process seems very similar to approaches that make biofuels using algae, although the company says it is not using algae. The company's microorganisms can be grown inside transparent reactors, where they're circulated to ensure that they all get exposed to sunlight, and they are fed concentrated carbon dioxide--which can come from a power plant, for example--and other nutrients. (The company's mioreactor is a flat panel with an area about the size of a sheet of plywood.) While algae typically produce oils that have to be refined into fuels, Joule's microorganisms produce fuel directly--either ethanol or hydrocarbons. And while oil is harvested from algae by collecting and processing the organisms, Joule's organisms excrete the fuel continuously, which could make harvesting the fuel cheaper.

David Berry, one of the company's founders and a board member, says the organism they use was selected and modified to work well in a bioreactor, and the bioreactor was designed with the specific organism in mind. He adds that the company carefully considered issues such as the organism's response to heat, and the reactor was built to keep the heat within bearable limits. Overheating has been a problem with
bioreactors in the past.

This is an entertaining read; however, until fate is fully able to judge the merits accordingly, I'm choosing to default to the skeptic's chair. This is way too pollyanish. Regardless, let's hope fate
reflects your proclamation. If so, you'll put me out of business far earlier than expected...

- Brewskie

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