Green Tech Co. Says It Has a Secret: A Fuel-Producing Wonder Organism

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2009 6:36 pm

Joule BiotechnologiesA startup biotechnology company unveiled its grand plans for a new energy source yesterday–although it didn’t share a few crucial details. The company, Joule Biotechnologies, says it has genetically engineered an organism that can efficiently produce unprecedented amounts of liquid fuel. However, chief executive Bill Sims will not reveal what that marvelous organism is. “If I tell you what the organism is, I’m inviting everyone else to take part in a transformational, evolutionary, game-changing technology” [Boston Globe], he says.

The company’s announcement comes soon after both ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical announced their investments in algae-derived biofuel production, and Joule’s technology has some similarities with those two projects. Like both those algae projects, Joule says it won’t be harvesting a plant and squeezing the oil out of it; instead the organism will secrete the fuel. But Sims says his organisms aren’t algae. In addition, Sims said the organisms do not need fresh water but can be grown in both brackish water or graywater, which is nonindustrial waste water from sources like baths and washing machines [Reuters].

Using a process that the company dubs “helioculture,” sunlight and carbon dioxide interact with the photosynthetic organisms, Sims says; as an added bonus, the carbon dioxide used could be the emissions from a factory or power plant. Sims says the organisms secrete the chemical equivalent of ethanol. “A large project would look much like a solar array,” Sims explained. “Instead of converting the sun’s heat energy into electrons, we’re using it to create liquid fuels” [Greenwire]. The company claims it can generate 20,000 gallons of fuel per year from every acre of “solar converter” panels, which is far more than other companies expect to produce. Exxon’s algae project, for example, aims to generate about 2,000 gallons per acre.

The company’s bullish projections have garnered plenty of attention, but also ample skepticism. Joule hopes to build a pilot plant next year, and a commercial-scale plant by 2012. That’s the same kind of ambitious timeline that has marked an awful lot of next-generation biofuel projects in recent years—projects that almost uniformly have failed to live up their hype. In contrast, Exxon—which has a few more years experience in the fuels business—figures it will take them “five to ten years” to get even small-scale plants up and running [The Wall Street Journal, blog].

Related Content:
80beats: Could Exxon Go Green? Oil Giant Invests in Algae Biofuel Research
80beats: Algae Tech’s Latest Goal: Make Ethanol for Bioplastics
80beats: Forget Biofuel. Is Bioelectricity the Next Big Thing?
80beats: Algae-Filled Greenhouses Aim to Take in CO2 and Turn out Biofuel 

Image: Joule Biotechnologies

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
  • scribbler

    “to get even small-scale plants up and running”…

    Alga are small scale plants, are they not?

    ;-)

  • Jumblepudding

    LOL at scribbler. I’m not a fan of this “proprietary” stuff. I feel like having less people party to the discovery can prevent the technology from being refined and can hurt its wide-scale implementation, and secrecy could be used to hide the shortcomings of the production method until they have too many investors for it to matter to the bottom line, kind of like ethanol, which it turned out is little better than a method to drive up corn prices. Maybe somebody has a better idea about how to “farm” these organisms. Of course Joule Biotechnology deserves to break the bank if they really have something big.

  • Shaithis

    I’m betting on goldfish as the organism. Those damn things will live in just about any kind of water. They must have genetically combined a goldfish with a Shell gas pump. Science….is there anything you can’t do!

  • Jimbo

    ‘the organisms secrete the chemical equivalent of ethanol.’ This would be methanol.

  • kimmel

    @Jimbo: Untrue. Methanol is c1h30h. ethanol is c2h5oh.

  • http://www.hoffberg.org Steve

    E. coli, S.cerevisiae, Salmonella. Wow–the secret is (was) that there is none.

    United States Patent Application 20090191599
    Devroe; Eric James ; et al. July 30, 2009
    ENGINEERED LIGHT-HARVESTING ORGANISMS

    Abstract
    The present disclosure identifies pathways and mechanisms to confer photoautotrophic properties to a heterotrophic organism. The resultant engineered cell or organism will uniquely enable efficient conversion of carbon dioxide and light into biomass and carbon-based products of interest.

    Inventors: Devroe; Eric James; (Malden, MA) ; Berry; David Arthur; (Brookline, MA) ; Afeyan; Noubar Boghos; (Lexington, MA) ; Robertson; Dan Eric; (Belmont, MA) ; Skraly; Frank Anthony; (Watertown, MA) ; Ridley; Christian Perry; (Acton, MA)
    Correspondence Name and Address:
    FENWICK & WEST LLP
    SILICON VALLEY CENTER, 801 CALIFORNIA STREET
    MOUNTAIN VIEW
    CA
    94041
    US
    Assignee Name and Adress: Joule Biotechnologies, Inc.
    Cambridge
    MA

    Serial No.: 208300
    Series Code: 12
    Filed: September 10, 2008
    U.S. Current Class: 435/101; 435/166; 435/252.33
    U.S. Class at Publication: 435/101; 435/252.33; 435/166
    Intern’l Class: C12P 19/04 20060101 C12P019/04; C12N 1/21 20060101 C12N001/21; C12P 5/00 20060101 C12P005/00

    1. An engineered cell comprising at least two engineered nucleic acids, wherein at least one engineered nucleic acid is selected from a group consisting of a light capture nucleic acid, a carbon dioxide fixation pathway nucleic acid, a NADH pathway nucleic acid, and a NADPH pathway nucleic acid; and wherein a second engineered nucleic acid is selected from a distinct member of said group.

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