Joule Raises $30M for Solar Biofuel Hybrid

Joule — the folks behind the unusual hybrid solar-biofuel technology that officially launched last year — have raised a second round of funding of $30 million. Joule’s technology takes a solar concentrating converter filled with brackish water, nutrients and a “highly engineered synthetic organism,” and concentrates sunlight onto the mixture to produce a bio-based fuel. The so-called HelioCulture device can produce ethanol or a hydrocarbon-based fuel that the company’s calling a “SolarFuel.”

Based in Cambridge, Mass., and founded in 2007, Joule was originally backed by Flagship Ventures, which put in “substantially less than $50 million,” Joule CEO Bill Sims cryptically told me last year. This morning Joule says that undisclosed institutional investors joined Flagship Ventures in the series B round.

Joule reiterated its planned timeline in today’s announcement: The company hopes to start producing its renewable diesel fuel at “high-capacity” starting in 2012. Sims told me last year that he was hoping Joule would build a commercial-scale plant “in either late 2011 or early 2012.”

The company has already started construction on its first pilot plant in Leander, Tex., which is supposed to be operational in the first half of this year. The funding announced today will help speed up that construction, says Joule, and also support technology development, including “genome engineering, bioprocessing and hardware engineering.”

Joule says that their solar technology design can produce biofuels for less than their competitors. Sims explained to me last year that because their solar converter system is modular (making it easy to scale up  and down), doesn’t use much land, and is a closed system, the technology can produce biofuels for less than $50 per barrel (that includes known and available subsidies). If you just focus on the land needed for Joule’s fuels, vs. cellulosic ethanol, Sims said, cellulosic ethanol can produce 2,000 gallons per acre per year, while Joule’s SolarFuels can produce 20,000 gallons per acre per year.

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 at mass scale and sell it, or sell its technology to biofuel developers. However, Joule’s latest work on a pilot plant and plans for a commercial plant suggest that the company is looking to produce biofuels at least at some scale.

Image courtesy of Joule

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