Joule Biotechnologies, Developer of Solar Fuel, Launches with Visions of U.S. Energy Independence

Joule Biotechnologies is officially launching today to reveal technology that is designed to mimic photosynthesis to produce liquid fuels and chemicals. The startup says it can produce ethanol at prices competitive with fossil fuels while avoiding some of the pitfalls of making ethanol with corn, switch grass, or other plant materials.

The firm says its method taps key ingredients of photosynthesis—namely sunlight and carbon dioxide—to make ethanol. The Cambridge, MA-based company plans to prove that the method, which has been demonstrated in the lab, can work on a commercial scale in 2010, Joule Biotechnologies CEO Bill Sims tells Xconomy. Though partners at Flagship Ventures in Cambridge formed the startup in 2007, Sims says that Joule has waited to reveal itself until it had a proven process and technology.

If it proves commercially viable, Joule’s process could clear some of the expense and technical hurdles associated with traditional ethanol and other alternative fuel production. Biofuels, for one, are typically made from crops like corn and soybeans that require lots of water and agricultural land to grow. And while cellulosic biofuels made from wood or grass and algae-based methods reduce water and land needs, they are currently more expensive than fossil fuels or have yet to become commercially viable. Joule is among a new generation of clean energy developers that aim to overcome hurdles of producing alternative fuels by tapping the power of the sun and other cheap and abundant resources. Lots of people are hoping that these efforts lead to breakthroughs that cut down on pollution from fossil fuels and, at least in the U.S., reduce dependence on foreign oil.

“We have a vision of finally bringing reality to the idea of energy independence,” Sims says, “and in order to do that we have to have a source of renewable fuel that has unlimited supply.”

Joule SolarConverterJoule points out that its system doesn’t require fresh water and agricultural land like traditional biofuel production. Sims described the function of the firm’s main device, called the SolarConverter, that facilitates the production process. The converter contains a mixture of brackish water, nutrients, and genetically engineered organisms. Carbon dioxide gas is fed into the mixture, and the device is designed to expose the organisms in the mixture to the sun, Sims explains. The organisms are photosynthetic, meaning that they absorb light energy and carbon dioxide to form compounds. Joule has engineered its organisms to secrete ethanol and hydrocarbons and chemicals.

Sims declined to say which specific photosynthetic organisms his firm engineers for its process, but he did reveal that the organisms are not algae, which many companies are … Next Page »

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