Saturday, January 22, 2011

Joule Unlimited Scores Loads of Free Publicity!

A synthetic biofuels company from Massachusetts called "Joule Unlimited" has managed to score tons of free publicity in newspapers, blogs, and news services -- without doing much at all! This is public relations at its finest, and the PR people at Joule have to be congratulated.

Joule is involved in the synthetic genomics of cyanobacteria -- having obtained patents to engineer the production of hydrocarbon fuels from bacteria using CO2 and sunlight. But in the news business, most journalists are always asking a potential news focus: "What have you done for me lately?" And in the case of Joule, the answer is "Not much at all."

It all started when the Globe & Mail had a story on Joule a few days ago which erroneously claimed that Joule's miracle bacterium was E. Coli -- after several people notified the paper of their error, they finally corrected it. But not before scores of blogs and other news sources repeated the G&M mistake verbatim. But the Globe & Mail story was about something that happened -- a patent approval -- in September 2010. So why did it take off in January 2011?

A respectable fusion energy forum -- Talk Polywell -- picked the story up, and it then spread. Respected blogger and engineer M. Simon picked up the story from Talk Polywell. Then Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds picked up the story from M. Simon. And from there the story spreads across the blogosphere...

But what has Joule Unlimited actually done lately to merit this new publicity?

Well, they elected John Podesta to their board of directors.

They somehow got dufus Senator John Kerry to call Joule's technology "a game changer."

Then, way back in September 2010 Joule is awarded a patent on its technology

Al Fin analysts can be heard muttering: "Not much progress for all of that free publicity."

Microbial bioenergy is indeed a game changer. But Joule Unlimited is only one of many fine companies with very fine research and development staffs who are working hard to bring large scale microbial fuels to reality. How did Joule's PR department trigger this isolated inflationary bubble of "news?"

Al Fin Energy Institute researchers are not complaining, mind you. Microbial fuels are set to be ready to start scaling up in roughly 10 years. In 20 years, microbial fuels will score at least 10% of the liquid fuels markets in advanced western countries. In 30 years, petroleum companies will be pushed to the wall to keep their costs down low enough to compete.

But premature ejaculations of gee whiz futurism can lead to wide-scale cynicism. In the case of microbial fuels, neither gee-whiz! optimism nor cynical pessimism are warranted. Synthetic genomics is pretty spectacular -- but it takes time to get results. Give it time.

Joule Unlimited patent applications

Proviso: In a fast-changing environment such as industrial synthetic genomics and synthetic fuels, breakthroughs can occur at any time. It is not always in a company's interest to reveal the state of its R&D progress. But all breakthroughs require time to develop into industrial processes, and much more time to scale up to actual commercial and industrial supply systems. As time goes on, we will hear about a lot of breakthroughs. Most of these newsreleases deserve to be taken with a tablespoon of magnesium sulfate and two glasses of water.

Update: Now Brian Wang has picked up the story at NextBigFuture. Brian featured the correct bacterial species in his posting and features some original material from the company's website -- proving once again that Brian's is the best of the technology blogs.

Watching this story getting picked up from site to site provides a dynamic portrait of blogospheric connections. In this case the Globe & Mail writer -- Neil Reynolds, who is one of my favourite mainstream press energy writers -- reported on a company that is no doubt doing some excellent work. But Reynolds was not actually reporting on recent news, he was merely highlighting ongoing work of one particular microbial fuels company. Just one out of many fine companies working on microbial fuels.

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