The Solar-Biofuel Hybrid: Joule Biotechnologies Launches

joulelogoJust don’t call them a biofuel firm, says Bill Sims, CEO of a startup called Joule Biotechnologies that is officially launching on Monday. Biofuels have gotten a bad rap and Joule wants none of the negative PR. But there’s actually a difference in what Joule does: instead of growing crops on land like more traditional biofuel technologies do, the company has developed a hybrid system that uses a solar concentrating converter that is filled with brackish water, nutrients and a “highly engineered synthetic organism,” to produce a bio-based fuel. The solar system, called a HelioCulture, concentrates sunlight onto the mixture, and the engineered photosynthetic organism — which Sims wouldn’t elaborate on, only to say it’s not algae — converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into ethanol or a hydrocarbon-based fuel called a “SolarFuel.”

Sims says that because the solar converter system is modular, can easily scale up with more converters, doesn’t use land, and is a closed system, the technology can lower the cost of producing the biofuel to less than $50 per barrel (that includes known and available subsidies, says Sims). If you just focus on the land needed for Joule’s fuels, vs. cellulosic ethanol, Sims says cellulosic ethanol can produce 2,000 gallons per acre per year, while Joule’s SolarFuels can produce 20,000 gallons per acre per year.

That is, when the company starts producing fuel in volume. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Joule was founded in 2007, and is backed by Flagship Ventures, which put in “substantially less than $50 million,” says Sims cryptically. The company hopes to break ground on a pilot plant in 2010, and a commercial-scale plant in either late 2011 or early 2012. Sims says the company had been in stealth mode until now in order to protect the company’s “revolutionary” concept.

Interestingly enough, Joule hasn’t yet worked out its favored business model yet, and is waiting for the market to decide. The company could either build its SolarFuel-producing plants itself and sell the fuel (probably not such a good plan in a capital-constrained economy), or sell the technology to fuel developers who will produce their own fuel. The company has engineered its organism to produce the fuel as efficiently as possible, not unlike the work that Synthetic Genomic’s founder Craig Venter has done.

While the concept of the solar-biofuel system is novel, at the end of the day Joule’s success will depend on economics and margins — can the HelioCulture’s scale and deliver as low prices as Joule claims. And to know that they have to start building out a commercial plant, so don’t expect to get a definitive answer on if Joule works or not or several years to come.

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