Recent Investments Lead to More Microorganisms Producing Biofuel

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In January of this year, Joule Unlimited received another $70 million in funding to pursue the expansion and commercialization of its biofuel process. The new money is marked for the build-out and operation of its facility in New Mexico. This, the company says, will help it show how its process can be expanded incrementally while still producing sufficient fuel to be a real alternative to oil.

The company could conceivably expand its facility to 1,000 acres for the initial commercial production. In theory, this will allow the production of a significantly large amount of fuel while showing how easily the process can scale up to meet demand.

As a company, Joule says it’s different from other algae fuel producers, though, because it is focused on “direct solar fuel.” This is to say that the fuels are directly produced by biological or chemical reactions that are powered by the sun. All of the fuel it harvests is simply the by-products of photosynthetic metabolism, which eliminates the need to grow and harvest countless acres of corn or other products to generate fuel.

Understanding the Process

Joule has stated that its goal is to make 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year. If you do the math on their thousand-acre expansion, then the company could potentially deliver 20,000,000 gallons a year. An impressive number, considering this would only be the first location if the process proves to be feasible and cost effective.

While their process is similar in some respects to algae fuel, the company says it doesn’t actually use algae, but rather a microscopic organism that can be grown in a transparent reactor.

Each module in Joule’s thousand-acre system (called a SolarConverter array) will include the microorganisms, non-potable water, and micronutrients. Waste CO2 is then pumped into the system through a pipeline or industrial emitter which serves to keep the microorganisms moving and increasing their exposure to sunlight.

Once the organisms have absorbed enough light, they will consume the CO2 and continuously secrete the fuel into the medium, which is then circulated through a separator where the end product can be extracted.

Will It Work?

Now that Joule has received some funding, it will be able to start testing its process on a much larger scale. While the initial tests have been optimistic, and calculations show that it should scale up to this level of production, there will always be the question of the cost to the consumers.

The good news is that this sustainable, continual fuel source will be able to leverage the current infrastructure to deliver the liquid fuel. However, we’re still unsure about the costs. Most of the current algae-based fuels are still comparatively expensive, which means we are unlikely to adopt them as a major fuel source any time soon, but Joule claims they will be competitive with crude oil prices.

Once construction begins this summer on the expanded facility we will start to get a better picture of what impact this not-quite-algae might have on the alternative fuel industry.

Article by Jerry Milano who writes on a variety of subjects from CPE classes to political issues. His most recent focus has been on what it will take for businesses to more readily adopt green technologies.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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