Thursday, May 05, 2011

Joule Unlimited Calculates Cost as Low as $20 a Barrel Diesel


Joule Unlimited has signed a lease agreement for a site in New Mexico, for production of its Helioculture microbial fuel. As reported here earlier, Joule reckons it can achieve photosynthetic yields sufficient to produce renewable diesel at costs as low as $20 a barrel, when taking subsidies into account. (abstract and link to full text PDF supporting Joule's yield calculations, via GCC)
Joule’s process, called Helioculture, combines an engineered cyanobacterial organism supplemented with a product pathway and secretion system to produce and secrete a fungible alkane diesel product continuously in a SolarConverter designed to efficiently and economically collect and convert photonic energy. The process is closed and uses industrial waste CO2 at concentrations 50–100 times higher than atmospheric.

The diesel process yields long-chain alkanes, the majority component of diesel fuel, as opposed to a low-percentage blendstock like biodiesel. As a result it can immediately drop in to the existing diesel infrastructure with no need for refining or chemical processing.

Joule’s production facilities will employ the next generation of the company’s novel SolarConverter system, which manages the direct, continuous process from photon capture to product synthesis and separation with efficiencies that are up to 50X greater than those of biomass-dependent processes. At full-scale production, Joule expects to deliver diesel and ethanol for as little as $20/bble and $0.60/gallon respectively, including current subsidies. _GCC

It is possible that the theory supports Joule's assertions, but theoretical yields can be different from actual yields. While microbial fuels are likely to provide fuels and high value chemicals for the intermediate to distant futures, in the more near term, biomass approaches using thermochemical and clever fermentation and catalytic processes are likely to capture the field -- in terms of renewable fuels.

Biomass-derived sugars will be far cheaper than sugars from cane or corn (maize). Thermochemical approaches (gasification, pyrolysis, etc) are relatively quick and easy, and when combined with F-T and other advanced catalytic syntheses, can produce significan volumes of high grade fuels and chemicals -- as long as sufficient supplies of biomass are assured.

Joule is one of many microbial (including micro-algae) fuels startups combining world-class research talent with substantial financial backing. But it will take years to learn to get around what are currently seen as iron-clad limitations in yield from photosynthetic approaches. Eventually, they will succeed, and the world will change as a result.

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