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

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using to development methods of producing renewable fuels. He also wouldn’t describe the nutrients used in the mixture. Joule is designing the SolarConverters to be assembled and integrated into modules of 10 that can be installed in much the way solar panels are installed. This would provide flexibility to alter the number of converters used at a specific site depending on the availability of space for them and the desired level of system output, he says. Also, the company plans to employ the same basic solar conversion process it uses to produce ethanol to make hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals.

Joule has high expectations for its process. The company says it is capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre on an annual basis. That’s far more than recent estimates of annual per acre output from algae, which Sims says come in around 2,000 gallons. Joule also says that it has the potential to yield transportation fuels at $50 per barrel or less, rivaling the prices of petroleum-based fuels. Sims says that the firm plans to open a pilot facility in early 2010, and he expects the firm to have a commercial-scale plant to produce ethanol by late-2011 or early-2012.

Joule CEO Bill Sims.

Joule CEO Bill Sims.

David Berry, a partner at Flagship Ventures, says that he and Flagship CEO and managing partner Noubar Afeyan formed Joule in 2007 with the goal of developing a fuel production process that didn’t rely on sugar-based feedstocks like traditional biofuels. (Afeyan is chairman of the company.) They also wanted a technology that didn’t require a fortune to be spent in order to figure out whether it could be done at an industrial scale. Rather, they were looking for a process with modular capabilities that could be done on large and small scales with the same results, thus eliminating the scale-up risks that often come with demonstrating clean energy methods at industrial levels for the first time. It became clear to them, Berry says, that their goals could be achieved by employing advances in synthetic biology to develop an efficient means of converting solar energy directly into fuel.

The concept of solar fuel is catching on in the Boston area and beyond. In fact, I reported back in April that Waltham, MA-based Polaris Venture Partners had backed a secretive startup called Sun Catalytix, which was believed to be developing solar fuel technology based on the discoveries of company founder and MIT chemist Daniel Nocera. Sun Catalytix was formed in 2008 and has been quiet about its operations and technology. While reporting the Sun Catalytix story, I also came across Maynard, MA-based Nanoptek, which was also keeping a low profile, in its case, about its system that harnesses the energy of the sun in a process that produces hydrogen gas.

To this point, Sims says, Flagship is the only institutional investor in Joule. Both he and Joule SVP of finance David Johnson were top executives (Sims CEO and Johnson CFO) of Boston-based Color Kinetics, another Flagship portfolio company that was sold to Philips in 2007 for $791 million—after it had already gone public. Sims declined to say how much money has been invested in Joule other than noting that the total is less than $50 million. The company plans to locate its converters where CO2 and sunlight are plentiful. Think of a coal-powered electricity plant or cement factory in Texas. Yet no site for the pilot facility has been announced. Sims says that Joule is considering several financing strategies to develop its technology, including raising funds on its own and attracting financial support from corporate partners such as energy companies.

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