Generating Joules with Sunlight and Water
Recently, biofuels have increased in popularity because of rising oil prices and the need for energy security. The International Energy Agency has set a goal for biofuels to meet more than a quarter of world demand for transportation fuels by 2050 in order to reduce our dependence on petroleum and coal. One issue with producing traditional biofuels cost effectively is the need for feedstock such as corn or sugercane which require arable land to produce and increase production costs. Biofuels could be far cheaper if they weren’t made from corn, sugarcane, or other forms of biomass. One company that is producing hydrocarbon diesel fuel and ethanol directly from sunlight and waste CO2 is Joule.
Founded in 2007, Massachusetts based Joule is primarily backed by Flagship Ventures one of the nation’s leading venture capital firms in healthcare and a firm who backed the recent nanomedicine IPO Bind Therapeutics. In addition to Flagship, the company is also backed by RUSNANO as well as other undisclosed institutional and private sources. Joule has taken in over $160 million in investments so far with the latest funding round of $50 million taking place in August of this year. The CEO Bill Sims recently stepped down after four years as CEO although he plans to remain on the Board. The CEO and co-founder Of Flagship, Noubar Afeyan, is presently the interim CEO. One of Joule’s technical advisers is George Church, widely considered to be a pioneer in synthetic biology. John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, also sits on the Board of Directors.
The company has created a genetically altered organism that uses the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels which it secretes in a matter similar to sweating. The process uses a fraction of the land and capital investment required for algae-derived biofuels. The process can be seen below:
In a 2010 article by the New York Times , it was announced that Joule won a key patent and became the first company to patent an organism that secretes hydrocarbon fuel made continuously, directly from sunlight. These organisms are capable of producing 25,000 gallons of ethanol (Joule Sunflow-E) or 15,000 gallons of diesel (Joule Sunflow-D) per acre per year for as little as $1.28/gallon and $50/barrel respectively (excluding subsidies).
The company has a total of 19 patents for their technology and 134 pending patent applications. Since 2011, Audi and Joule have had a partnership through which Audi has acquired exclusive rights to certain of Joule’s patents in the automotive field. According to an October 2012 press release by Audi, Joule has been producing ethanol since late 2012 which can power petrol vehicles with only minor modification in their Sunsprings plant in New Mexico.
While Joule has been rather quiet on the news front this year, they certainly are a very exciting company with a great deal of potential that merits watching going forward.
(UPDATE 6/24/2018 – Looks like in July 2017 Joule blew up due to low oil prices. More here.)