Joule Biotechnologies — the folks behind the unusual hybrid solar-biofuel technology that officially launched last year — say they will build their first pilot plant in Leander, Texas and it will be operational within the first half of this year. That puts the 3-year-old Cambridge, Mass-based company on track with the strategy that CEO Bill Sims described to me last July, that Joule would break ground on a pilot plant in 2010, and potentially a commercial-scale plant in either late 2011 or early 2012.
I’ve got to say, compared to all the biofuel companies out there, Joule has the most unique technology (they don’t like being call a biofuel developer). 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 the company won’t disclose more about, only to say it’s not algae — converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into ethanol or a hydrocarbon-based fuel called a “SolarFuel.”
Because each solar converter system is modular, Joule can scale up and down a project with more or less converters. The converters are also compact, so Sims told me that while cellulosic ethanol can produce 2,000 gallons per acre per year, Joule’s HelioCultures can produce 20,000 gallons per acre per year. Sims claims that with all of the efficiencies of the technology, Joule can lower the cost of producing the biofuel to less than $50 per barrel (that includes known and available subsidies).
The idea is so out-of-the-box when it comes to design that Sims told me last year that the company remained in stealth since its founding in 2007 so that competitors wouldn’t be able to copy its idea. As of last year the company was still working out its business model, weighing whether to produce the fuel in mass and sell it, or sell its technology to biofuel developers. The company is backed by Flagship Ventures.
Image courtesy of Joule Biotechnologies.