Written by DailyTech
Company making diesel with sun, water & CO2
Genetically-engineered cyanobacterium eliminates biomass step to produce ready-to-use diesel fuel or ethanol
A biotechnology company in Massachusetts has created a genetically engineered organism capable of producing diesel fuel or ethanol, which can be used to run cars and jet engines.
Joule Unlimited, a Cambridge-based producer of alternative energy technologies that was founded in 2007, developed a genetically engineered organism called a cyanobacterium, which uses water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce and secrete renewable fuels.
Until now, researchers have created fuel from solar energy through the use of corn and algae. But creating ethanol from corn or extracting fuel from algae on a large scale can be costly due to biomass. The process consists of having to grow tons of algae or corn, harvest it and destroy it in order to extract the fuel, which must then be treated before it can be used.
But according to biologist Dan Robertson, Joule Unlimited's top scientist, the cyanobacterium eliminates biomass from the equation when producing renewable fuels. The organism is genetically engineered to secrete a "completed product," which is identical to ethanol or diesel fuel. In addition, it is not destroyed in the process of producing these fuels, and can continuously create more. The cyanobacterium used is "found everywhere" and less complex than algae, making it easier to genetically manipulate.
Joule Unlimited claims that the cyanobacterium can create 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually. Also, the company says it can do this at $30 a barrel. The plan is to build facilities close to power plants so that their cyanobacteria can consume waste carbon dioxide, making the organism an environmentally friendly addition to the oil industry.
In addition, the cyanobacteria are housed in flat, solar panel-like bioreactors with grooved, thin panels for both light absorption and fuel collection. The bioreactors are modules that allow for the building of arrays as small or large "as land allows" at facilities.
"We make some lofty claims, all of which we believe, all which we've validated, all of which we've shown to investors," said Joule Chief Executive Bill Sims. "If we're half right, this revolutionizes the world's largest industry, which is the oil and gas industry. And if we're right, there's no reason why this technology can't change the world."
While Joule Unlimited seems confident in its new organism, others aren't so sure that the new fuel-producing cyanobacterium will work. For example, National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientist Phillip Pienkos calculated the information from Joule's paper on the study, and said that eliminating the biomass step creates problems when recovering the fuel. Specifically, it leaves small amounts of fuel in relatively large amount of water producing a "sheen." He believes the company will have problems recovering large amounts of fuel efficiently.
"I think they're trading one set of problems for another," said Pienkos.
But Robertson doesn't seem to agree with Pienkos' criticism. In fact, Robertson described a day in the future when he will own a Ferrari and fill its tank with Joule fuel. He plans to prove all naysayers wrong when he hits the gas pedal on his new vehicle, showing how well it runs on Joule's fuel.
"I wasn't kidding about the Ferrari," said Robertson.
Sims feels the same way about Joule's new organism, suggesting that critics are too closed-minded and behind the times to accept such technology yet.
"There's always skeptics for breakthrough technologies," said Sims. "And they can ride home on their horse and use their abacus to calculate their checkbook balance."
Joule Unlimited plans to begin building a 10-acre demonstration facility this year, and hopes to be operating commercially as soon as two years.