Friday, January 21, 2011

Biofuel Breakthrough?

I have just been notified by my friends at Talk Polywell of a break through in the biologic generation of liquid fuels. The Globe and Mail reports on the breakthrough (although my friends at Talk Polywell think the report is garbled by a not entirely science literate reporter).

In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for “a proprietary organism” – a genetically adapted E. coli bacterium – that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, “fossil fuels on demand.”
Not only that. They can tailor the organisms to produce specific fuels using only CO2, water (fresh or salt), and sunlight.
Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has “proven the process,” has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year.

By way of comparison, Cornell University’s David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels. If a few hundred barrels of crude sounds modest, recall that millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland are now used to make corn ethanol.
So is this reputable or just a bunch of scammers?
Joule acknowledges its reluctance to fully explain its “solar converter.” CEO Bill Sims told Biofuels Digest, an online biofuels news service, that secrecy has been essential for competitive reasons. “Some time soon,” he said, “what we are doing will become clear.” Although astonishing in its assertions, Joule gains credibility from its co-founder: George Church, the Harvard Medical School geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984.
Well how about a look at what Biofuels Digest has to say.
In Massachusetts, Joule Unlimited has won a second key patent for its genetically modified cyanobacteria that directly convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into n-alkanes, and other diesel fuel molecules. The patent is the first awarded for a bacteria that makes fuel directly from water, sunlight and CO2, as opposed to organisms that make fuels from sugar or other cellulosic biomass, such as those engineered by LS9, Amyris or Solazyme.

As reported previously in the Digest, Joule is using a genetically modified form of cyanobacteria. Two weeks ago, Joule received its first key patent for “methods and compositions for modifying photoautotrophic organisms as hosts, such that the organisms efficiently convert carbon dioxide and light into n-alkanes."
Those reporting the death of the US as a world power may have been somewhat premature. Joule is reported to be building a prototype plant in Leander, Tex. At this stage of course nothing is certain. It will probably take a couple of years to prove this out and get the "bugs" out of the system. And probably a couple of decades to scale up the idea until the production becomes a significant fraction of US liquid fuel use. Time will tell.

Here is another possible approach:

Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel

Welcome Instapundit readers.

Thanks to reader clazy here is a link to the Joule patents.

Cross Posted at Classical Values

22 comments:

West said...

Here's a dime. Call me when you have a barrel for sale for $30, sans federal subsidies and grants.

If I had a nickel for every cheap energy claim...

M. Simon said...

West,

I'm pretty much a sceptic on all these claims.

What changed my mind was this:

Joule gains credibility from its co-founder: George Church, the Harvard Medical School geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984.

Of course as you point out the proof is in the pudding.

Jum said...

Joule will gain all the credibility it needs if it dispenses with announcements and begins making trillions of $ by producing all the fuel the world needs for 1/3 the price charged by OPEC.

William said...

Hey, M - just think if both this and that latest cold fusion thingy pan out. Singularity, here we come!

Greg Toombs said...

This reads like a parody.

M. Simon said...

Jum,

It is going to take a LOT of capital to make that much fuel.

To make $trillions will require an investment of at least trillions. That will take time.

In the mean time a pilot plant is being built in Tx. I would expect from between one and five years (depending on problems) before there is anything useful.

M. Simon said...

William,

I'm a big Polywell Fusion fan too.

Greg,

Go to the Talk-Polywell link and read what those boys have to say. They are some very sharp cookies.

I wouldn't have posted this if they didn't think there was some chance that it would work.

gutless said...

Hmmm, the organism "feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline." That sounds absolutely plausible to me. Think of it, the things eats a greenhouse gas thus halting global warming and then actually shits all that good stuff. Where do I send my money to invest, Nigeria? I've already got a great thing going there but it's on the QT, can't talk about it but it's huge!

Nate Whilk said...

I hope they're making very sure these things are contained. If not, isn't there a risk of oil slicks on every body of water?

M. Simon said...

gutless,

Read the Talk-Polywell link. Good discussion there on the pros and cons.

BTW they seem to have fooled the Patent Office too.

denbeste said...

How much capital investment (e.g. for pipes, water processing, refining, and so on) is needed per unit capacity?

In the end, this is another form of solar power, and it runs up against the same problem all forms of solar power do: solar power is diffuse. To collect a lot of it, you need a lot of surface area, and collection surface area is a capital expense. Plastic pipes are at least cheaper and easier to produce than photocells, but it's still an issue.

The real hurdle with all forms of "alternate energy" is scaling. Making one barrel of oil is interesting. Making a million is the real trick, though.

denbeste said...

Nate, wild oil slicks are probably not a problem, because there are alge in the wild which can and will process petroleum for fuel.

That's why the Gulf oil spill was a lot less serious than it originally looked like it would be: a large part of the spilled oil was eaten by microorganisms.

Jeff said...

Many other posters have valid points.

Here is what I see as the primary barrier to bioenergy from any source be readily viable; dilution and processing.

All bio-based 'stuff' is really quite dilute (from an energy perspective) when compared to oil, coal, or nuclear.

All bio based materials must be isolated from the extraneous components and then concentrated in order to economically deliver the bioderived energy source to the end use.

The result is enormous cost to convert (process and concentrate) biomass into a usable and economically transportable form. Then there is all the water you need to process and dispose.

And none of this captures the capital required to build the facility to handle the large volumes.

While this 'bug' may produce hydrocarbons at some level, their per BTU cost will likely be enormous.

However, with unsustainable subsidies from the ol' US guvment, and viola, you have a viable business. Just like wind power.

Dan said...

I read these things with interest when they come across my screen...and I USED to get excited about them. With age and experience comes wisdom.

When this thing is producing more than 1% of our national liquid fuel usage, wake me up and I'll pay closer attention.

Brock said...

Well I'm cautiously excited anyway. Biological systems have been producing simple sugars and lipids for a few trillennia now, and it's only the laws of Darwinian Fitness (not the laws of physics) which have discouraged them from adding even more carbon atoms to the chain. I know many teams have been working on this (a good friend who is a VC in this space tells me about it all the time; and Craig Venter has received mid-nine figure funding from Exxon-Mobile for this very thing), and if Joule has spoken prematurely, I'm sure someone will get there within a decade.

And frankly I hope it's multiple someones. I don't want a cartel (OPEC) replaced by a true monopoly. Talk about obscenely enriching monopoly rents!

This should be cheap to build out too. All the sophisticated equipment is reproduced biologically; human labor just needs to build some really big petri dishes. Sort of like how babies are enormously complicated but the cost of production is food and shelter for the mother. Just $1/day in Africa!

The ironic thing is that the limiting resources of this technology will be diffuse sunlight, and thus empty land not otherwise being put to productive use. You know what country has tons of sunlight and otherwise useless real estate? Saudi Arabia. Ha ha! Long after they stop digging it out of the ground Europe will still have to import oil from Arab deserts. At least America has New Mexico.

Eventually though Russia, China, India and Indonesia are going to want sources they control - but they lack the land or sunlight for. This will lead to really big floating petri dishes out on the ocean near the equator and far from land. Today's deep sea oil rig is tomorrow's equatorial E. Coli farm, surrounded by thousands of acres of (what looks like from an airplane) a whole bunch of lily pads. Oil tankers will then bring it to shore.

Jose said...

The article is in error with respect to the output of corn-ethanol per acre. It should be about 310 gallons per acre per year rather than 328 barrels per acre per year. Furthermore, for this biologic process to generate 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year it would have to utilize about 50% of the available energy provided by the Sun on an acre of land. Not only is this unbelievable but absorbing that much of the Sun's radient energy would cause the temperature in the area of the process to drop significantly.

Jose

Tully said...

News release from Joule.

M. Simon said...

Let us look at it from the point of view of technology and logic with a little biochemistry thrown in. Nothing difficult.

1. Some biologic process made those chemicals.
2. We know biologic processes that make those chemicals today.
4. Plants take CO2, sunlight, and water and make hydrocarbos (among other things) simple and complex.
5. We can do some DNA engineering
6. Conceptually the plant is simple. Pump fluid in tubes (or flat plates or some other shape), inject CO2, while the sun is shining. Skim off the fuel (if the bacteria work as claimed).
7. The question is not can we do it. It is can we do it at low enough cost?

Steve (nice to see you) up thread made a similar point.

M. Simon said...

From Tully's link:

Joule Elects Former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to Board of Directors



Mr. Podesta’s accomplished career on Capitol Hill spans 30 years. He is currently President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a “think tank” organization that he founded in 2003 to help develop and advocate for progressive policy. He was previously White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton, serving in the president’s cabinet and as a principal on the National Security Council. He also served as both an assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff, as well as staff secretary and a senior policy advisor on government information, privacy, telecommunications security, and regulatory policy.

Most recently, Mr. Podesta served as co-chair of President Obama’s transition, where he coordinated the priorities of the incoming administration’s agenda, oversaw the development of its policies, and spearheaded its appointments of major cabinet secretaries and political appointees. His prior positions on Capitol Hill included counselor to Democratic Leader Senator Tom Daschle; chief counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee; and chief minority counsel for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittees on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks; Security and Terrorism; and Regulatory Reform.


I am not excited (well I don't like actually) John's politics. But this is not a post about politics it is about technology.

clazy said...

Is it just me, or is it odd that no one here has looked at the patents yet? here

Neil said...

Bringing a politician in from the Center for American Progress at the demonstration stage is a bad sign for the technology (regardless of what one thinks of the CAP).

They're fishing for subsidies. If they really had what they claim, they'd just build it and start printing money. My SWAG is that the marginal cost of production is $30/barrel equivalent, but that ignores the capital investment. Therefore, they need to scale the market rapidly (read--force consumers to purchase it) in order to have a viable business model.

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