Monday, January 17, 2011

Biofuels that don't compete with food crops

The idea of biofuels from microbial sources has been around for a while, but if this company's claims hold up, it would be a huge breakthrough:
In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for “a proprietary organism” – a genetically adapted E. coli bacterium – that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, “fossil fuels on demand.”

We’re not talking “biofuels” – not, at any rate, in the usual sense of the word. The Joule technology requires no “feedstock,” no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered micro-organisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”

Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has “proven the process,” has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year.

By way of comparison, Cornell University’s David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels. If a few hundred barrels of crude sounds modest, recall that millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland are now used to make corn ethanol.

From the Globe. I have to quibble with the claim that "we're not talking biofuels"; of course these are biofuels -- they're fuels from biological sources, after all. I kind of get what Reynolds means, though; they don't have the drawbacks that most biofuels we see today have. And I'm pretty sure you'd at least need some minerals to nourish the bacteria. Nonetheless, this could be great news.

Of course, as the article admits, the company is extremely secretive about their process. Naturally, this doesn't necessarily mean it's hokum; they may be trying to protect trade secrets as they claim. Time will tell whether this is the real deal, or just another bit of vapourware (by the way, has anyone heard any news of EEStor lately?)

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