Sunlight to Fuels with Joule

Is it possible to take sunlight and CO2 and make liquid fuel from it? The folks at Joule Unlimited think so. Today the firm announced that it has been awarded a patent for technology that purports to convert the ubiquitous inputs into diesel fuel. The firm uses photobioreactors to supply sunlight and CO2 to engineered cyanobacteria that produce n-alkanes. It’s different than most biofuel start-ups that we read about in that there is no food for the bacteria (often called bluegreen algae, though not technically an algae) other than sunlight and CO2. So, no sugar, either from corn, cellulose or other source. Also there’s no harvesting because the process is designed to be continuous. Having learned about some of the ins and outs of various biofuel technologies, what sounds nifty about Joule’s technology is the directness of it. As any engineer will tell you, the problems with any process come at the interfaces. Getting cheap cellulosic material to the front door is a problem for a cellulosic ethanol producer. Separating algae from water and squeezing oil out of the humble creatures is a problem for algal oil firms. Doing away with the feeding and the squeezing might be a good idea. But just because this week’s technology avoids the pitfalls of last week’s doesn’t at all mean it will be successful. If you want to put your own odds on Joule’s prospects, take a look at their shiny new patent (or their almost-as-shiny patent on "Hyperphotosynthetic Organisms." And you can read today's New York Times story on the company, which says the bacteria actually “sweat” n-alkanes. Nice visual, there.

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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