Joule Biotechnologies has announced a major step forward in its development of renewable fuels, achieving direct microbial conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons via engineered organisms, powered by solar energy.
Joule is advancing a new, photosynthesis-driven approach to producing renewable fuels, avoiding the economic and environmental burden of multi-step, cellulosic or algal biomass-derived methods. The company employs a novel SolarConverter system, together with proprietary, product-specific organisms and state-of-the-art process design, to harness the power of sunlight while consuming waste CO2. Its technology platform has already been proven out with the conversion of CO2 into ethanol at high productivities, a process that enters pilot development in early 2010. With this latest achievement of genome engineering, Joule is now capable of directly producing hydrocarbons – setting the stage for delivery of infrastructure-compatible diesel fuel without the need for raw material feedstocks or complex refining.
The breakthrough was made possible by the discovery of unique genes coding for enzymatic mechanisms that enable the direct synthesis of both alkane and olefin molecules – the chemical composition of diesel. Production was achieved at lab scale, with pilot development slated for early 2011.
"This achievement marks a critical step towards making renewable diesel fuel a reality at high volumes and competitive costs," said Bill Sims, president and CEO, Joule Biotechnologies. “We are accelerating the pace to create a direct replacement for petroleum-based diesel that can use today’s storage and distribution methods, with a very high net energy balance, and without the depletion of natural resources incurred by biomass-to-liquid approaches. It won’t happen overnight, but this latest milestone opens the door to an industry-changing technology."
According to OPEC’s 2009 World Outlook, world demand for middle distillate fuel, chiefly diesel, will grow faster than any other refined oil product to 34.2 million barrels per day by 2030. The U.S. currently consumes approximately 19 million barrels of fuel per day, with diesel accounting for three million of that amount.
Joule is directly targeting this opportunity with a production process that requires only CO2 as opposed to raw material feedstocks, removing a costly component that can be subject to significant fluctuations in price and availability. Because its organisms are being engineered to directly secrete hydrocarbon molecules, Joule will avoid costly steps such as large-scale biomass collection, energy-intensive degradation, or other downstream refinement. In addition, Joule’s process requires just marginal, non-arable land, no crops and no fresh water.