Biofuels company industrializes photosynthesis

For eight years, Joule has been working under the radar to develop and commercialize its CO2-to-fuel technology. This story appears in the February issue of EPM with the headline 'Industrializing photosynthesis.'
By Holly Jessen | January 14, 2016

When it comes to ethanol production volumes per acre of land, Joule's Helioculture technology leaves all other processes in the dust.

“We can do several factors higher productivity than any other biofuel system,” says Tom Jensen, executive vice president and head of corporate development, speaking from the company’s demo plant in Hobbs, New Mexico, where the company has reached peak yields of 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, per year. At lab scale, the number is closer to 16,000 gallons at peak, and Joule is still reaching for higher productivity numbers for an ideal outdoor location. “We do believe we know how close the gap to what we label theoretical maximum, which is about 25,000 gallons per acre, per year.”

The company’s technology utilizes engineered cyanobacteria to continuously convert waste CO2 to fuel, including ethanol and alkanes that are highly blendable for diesel and jet fuel products. Joule has developed a library of cyanobacteria, each one optimized for production of a desired end product. Joule’s process can also produce biochemicals, although that hasn’t been the company’s focus. “We believe the world needs a scalable low carbon solution for fuel,” Jensen says.

While some refer to cyanobacteria as simply algae, Joule uses the more technically correct term for the microorganisms. Cyanobacteria, a photosynthetic organism, is one of the oldest lifeforms on the planet and can be found growing in many different conditions, Jensen says. For example, although it’s not in a recoverable form, there are two species of cyanobacteria found in the earth’s oceans that naturally produce the equivalent of 15 million barrels of hydrocarbon equivalent daily. “What we are doing is replicating nature,” he says. “We are industrializing photosynthesis, if you like.”

The Joule system circulates engineered microorganisms, brackish or sea water, nutrients and CO2 in large see-through plastic tubes. As the organisms are exposed to sunlight, the photosynthetic process occurs and ethanol secretes out the cells of the organism, which is then recovered. “The efficiency of this process is quite extraordinary,” Jensen says. “It is really a close to 100 percent direct conversion of CO2 and sunlight to fuel.”

The technology is best suited for areas with strong sunlight, located in a wide band around the equator, and close to sources of CO2 and water. The company has identified more than 1,000 locations worldwide, which could support a commercial production unit of 1,000 acres or more, he says.
There is more work that needs to be done, however, before it becomes a reality. For one thing, the alkane diesel production process, which is a more complicated biological pathway than ethanol production, requires further development. “We have produced it,” Jensen says. “We know we can do it. But we are probably 12 to 18 months behind our ethanol program.”

The company expects the first commercial-scale Helioculture production unit to be up and running before the end of the decade. Eventually, Jensen says, the technology could replace a significant portion of current transportation fuels while reducing the environmental footprint by 80 to 90 percent and, eventually, nearly 100 percent. “This is a way to decarbonize the transportation sector,” he says.

Cooperative Progress
The company hit several major milestones in 2015, including the U.S. EPA registering it's trademarked Sunflow-E ethanol and closing on $40 million in private equity and venture debt financing, bringing the total raised to $200 million. At the end of the year Joule announced a partnership and a merger, both of which aim to move Joule along the pathway to commercial success. The most recent announcement was made in early December, after Joule and HeidelbergCement, a German company with locations around the world, including the U.S., agreed to explore how Joule’s technology could be applied to mitigate carbon emissions in cement manufacturing. Almost exactly one month prior to that, Joule and Red Rock Biofuels, a developer of renewable jet and diesel fuel biorefineries, announced they intended to merge.

The HeidelbergCement partnership could someday result in collocation of Joule’s technology at one or more of the German company’s cement manufacturing sites. Initially, however, Joule will set up a demo-scale system, to prove out the company’s ability to produce fuel with CO2emissions produced by HeidelbergCement’s manufacturing process, Jensen says. At the same time, Joule is continuing to evaluate other CO2 sources.

The merger of Red Rock and Joule, on the other hand, offers the company a more near-term path to commercialization. Red Rock’s process will use a commercially proven Fischer-Tropsch technology to produce 15 MMgy of renewable diesel and jet fuels from biomass residues sourced from forests and sawmills. Work to build the first biorefinery in Lakeview, Oregon, will begin this year and, is expected to wrap up within 18 months, Jensen says.

Although the Oregon facility will not be located in an optimal location for collocation of Joule’s Helioculture technology,  the company will test the viability of integrating the two technologies. Red Rock’s Fischer-Tropsch production process produces a pure source of CO2, which could be utilized in Joule’s production process as a feedstock, recycling an already recycled CO2 stream to produce more biofuels, Jensen says. The merger is a diversification strategy and adds a pathway for producing additional low carbon to carbon neutral fuels.

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine