The biotech company Joule Unlimited has just announced that its unique brand of recycled CO2 ethanol has successfully passed a round of third party testing, bringing it another step closer to commercializing the product in Europe and the U.S. Somewhat coincidentally Joule has just closed a $40 million round of financing, which will enable it to expand its flagship plant in Hobbs, New Mexico to commercial scale. The ultimate goal is to convert 150,000 tons of waste CO2 into 25 million gallons of ethanol per year at that facility. If you’re starting to hear a loud hammering noise, that would be another nail in the coffin of corn ethanol.
Along with our sister site Gas2.org we started following Joule’s solar powered, microbe-assisted recycled CO2 technology in 2009 when the company emerged from “stealth” mode, but we haven’t really checked into it since 2010. Our bad, since a lot’s been happening since then!
Sunlight + Recycled CO2 = Sustainable Ethanol
The basic idea behind recycled CO2 ethanol is to capture waste CO2 from industrial operations and convert it to liquid fuel. If that sounds a little space agey, the U.S. Department of Energy is all over waste gas-to-fuel technology.
Not for nothing, but back in 2010 MIT Technology Review named Joule’s “solar fuel” among its top ten list of “most important emerging technologies.”
Back then, Joule was working on a pilot recycled CO2 plant in Leander, Texas, which illustrates how the “solar fuel” process works.
Here’s how we described the company’s modular, scalable technology:
The heart of the process is the company’s proprietary SolarConverter, which contains photosynthetic organisms in a bath of brackish water and nutrients, with carbon dioxide fed in. While the concept is similar to producing algae biofuel, there are several significant twists. The organisms are not algae, they are bio-engineered proprietary organisms [cyanobacteria] that produce and secrete fuel without the need for costly fermentation processes, extraction or refinement processes. The system also skips the need to collect and transport large quantities of biomass.
The result is an ethanol that can be blended with gasoline, as Joule has just announced. The technology can also be applied to produce petrochemical equivalents leading to diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline among other products.
You can get the nitty gritty details in a 2011 paper titled “A New Dawn for Industrial Photosynthesis” published in the journal Photosynthesis Research. For those of you on the go, here’s couple of snippets from the abstract:
…These innovations are projected to operate at areal productivities far exceeding those based on accumulation and refining of plant or algal biomass or on prior assumptions of photosynthetic productivity. This concept, currently enabled for production of ethanol and alkane diesel fuel molecules, and operating at pilot scale, establishes a new paradigm for high productivity manufacturing of nonfossil-derived fuels and chemicals.
In there interests of cost effectiveness, the “free” energy from sunlight is big plus. Also helping things along is the process itself, which is designed as a single step, continuous-throughput system.