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

7/27/09

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 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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