As our technological boundaries continue to be conquered and redrawn, there are some on the bleeding edge of innovation that seem to blur the line between technology and magic. What Cambridge, Massachusetts based Joule Biotechnologies is claiming to have accomplished seems nothing short of magical: putting organisms, sunlight and carbon dioxide into a box and making a viable petroleum substitute appear. No drilling, no burning off waste. According to the company, that has been operating in stealth mode for nearly two years time, they are ushering in the new standard of fuel as essentially, liquid solar power.
“There is no question that viable, renewable fuels are vitally important, both for economic and environmental reasons. And while many novel approaches have been explored, none has been able to clear the roadblocks caused by high production costs, environmental burden and lack of real scale,” said Bill Sims, president and CEO.
If correct, their plan can take two of the most abundant things on the planet—photons and carbon dioxide—and circumvent the need to be drilling more wells searching for oil. Their “black box” is dubbed a Solar Converter, which reportedly uses proprietary organisms to induce photosynthesis, creating a hydrocarbon liquid the company calls SolarFuel. Simms points out that this separates them from a biofuel process, like ethanol, which uses a plant base for its feed stock.
The prospect of sun fed fuel could impressively leap-frog the ethanol industry, replacing it as the renewable fuel of choice given that its carbon footprint could vastly outperform ethanol’s much debated, corn-based and energy intensive process. Eventually, such a model could propose to achieve the impossible: bring the use and production of our country’s fuel to a level of stasis with the net input of carbon equaling the net output of its use.
Joule Biotech says they can create 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre at roughly $50 a barrel with current subsidies, certainly a competitive price point out of the box. Furthermore, the fuel is purportedly going to be compatible with existing engines for diesel and gasoline, wiping out the potential snag of retooling an industry. With a pilot plant scheduled to come online in 2010, their next milestone could be a ramp up for commercial scale production in 2012 with additional investing. Despite not knowing how cleanly the fuel burns in comparison to ethanol or conventional gasoline, the prospects of carbon improvement on the national scale are far-reaching.
So where is the downside? I had trouble finding one myself. Though I have to admit that the claims bring to mind another magical fix that spawned years ago called Thermal Conversion Process (TCP) technology developed by a company called Renewable Energy Solutions.
Their process claimed to make synthetic petroleum from super-heating agricultural and industrial waste such as tires, plastics and paper. The idea seemed attractive when they claimed their only by-products were fuel gas (butane, methane, propane mix), synthetic oil and water. The prospects seemed to offer a solution to not only our foreign oil dilemma, but a significant portion of our waste issue as well with (similarly) a virtually unlimited feedstock. Unfortunately, it seems no new plants other than the pilot plant in Carthage Missouri have been constructed and for some reason, they have not catalyzed a new standard in fuel production. Hopefully, we will be hearing much more from Joule Biotech in the near future.