Joule Biotechnology produces ethanol from sunlight, carbon dioxide

By Erin Voegele | July 08, 2009
Report posted July 28, 2009 at 5:05 p.m. CST

Cambridge, Mass.-based Joule Biotechnologies Inc. recently unveiled a new technology that can be used to produce ethanol from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Trademarked as Helioculture technology, the modular, direct-to-fuel process requires no agricultural land or fresh water.

The Helioculture process utilizes highly-engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and carbon dioxide into transportation fuels and chemicals. Joule's modular SolarConverter system is used to facilitate the process, from sunlight capture to product conversion and separation.

Once commercialized, Joule estimates that the technology will be capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of ethanol per acre annually, and will consume approximately 150 tons per carbon dioxide per year per acre. The system is designed to be customizable depending on land size, carbon dioxide availability and desired output.

"What we have is highly-engineered photosynthetic organisms existing in a solution of non-fresh water…and some nutrients," said Bill Sims, president and CEO of Joule Biotechnologies. "They exist inside this novel solar converter that captures the sun's rays." Sims describes sunlight as the processes primary input and carbon dioxide as the feedstock. "So, we are capturing CO2 and driving photosynthesis inside the solar converter," he continued. "The organisms have been modified to directly secrete a variety of solar fuels and solar chemicals." This includes ethanol, hydrocarbons and chemicals that are normally derived from petroleum.

According to Sims, Joule is validating the Heliocutlure technology using ethanol. He said this is due to the fact that a variety of other companies are also producing ethanol. This makes it easy to make cost and productivity comparisons.

One primary difference between Joule's technology and other ethanol technologies is that Joule's process requires no intermediary. "There is no biomass, there is no algae, grass or woodchips - or anything else that has to be harvested or grown and processed," Sims said.

Joule is expected to break ground on a pilot-scale facility in 2010. Sims said the pilot project is likely to be located adjacent to a power plant. "The reason we do that is that it provides easy access to CO2, and of course they would already have access to water and drainage." According to Sims, the technology could be installed on a commercial scale as early as 2012.

"There is no question that viable, renewable fuels are vitally important, both for economic and environmental reasons," Sims said. "And while many novel approaches have been explored, none has been able to clear the roadblocks caused by high production costs, environmental burden and lack of real scale. Joule was created for the very purpose of eliminating these roadblocks with the best equation of biotechnology, engineering, scalability and pricing to finally make renewable fuel a reality — all while helping the environment by reducing global CO2 emissions."