Joule Biotechnologies Picks Site For Pilot Ethanol Plant in the Desert

12/23/09

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Flagship Ventures, of Cambridge. Sims declined to comment on my direct questions about the firm’s future plans to raise more money. But he did tell me that Flagship remains the firm’s only venture backer and majority owner, and the firm has requested that the company keep under wraps things such as how much capital it has raised and when it expects to go out for money again. Sims (who is among a group of individual investors in Joule) said he doesn’t expect the company to add new institutional backers until around late 2010, when the firm is ready to move its ethanol production process to the industrial plant stage. That’s an aggressive pace of development for an alternative fuel developer launched in 2007.

The second priority for Joule is advancing its process of making diesel (not biodiesel composed of alkyl esters and made with biomass, but the real thing made with hydrocarbons.) In November, the firm said that it had proven its photosynthesis-driven method of making diesel in the lab, and the plan is to enter pilot-scale production with the process by early 2011. Like with its ethanol product, the company expects to be able to make diesel without crop feedstock or expensive refining. The company is also hoping to make diesel at about $40 per barrel, competitive with the price of diesel made from crude. But ethanol is still the primary product under development.

“In order to show the breadth of the technology, we’ve shown that we can produce numerous fuels and chemicals,” said Sims (who is the former CEO of Boston-based LED lighting firm Color Kinetics, another Flagship portfolio company, which was sold to Royal Philips Electronics for $791 million in 2007). “We’ve decided to prove the Helioculture processes with ethanol because we thought it was the easiest thing to make in comparison to biomass-derived fuels.”

The company, which now employs close to 40 people, is also talking to potential partners from five different sectors, according to Sims. Those potential partners range from the more obvious ones such as major CO2 emitters, chemical firms, and fuel producers, to the less obvious, such as airline companies, and agricultural product makers. For transportation firms like airlines, Joule’s technology could reduce their fuel costs by bringing production closer to their airports. And it turns out that Joule’s strategy of providing solar converters and the ingredients such as photosynthetic organisms for making fuel or chemicals looks a lot like the seed business, the CEO said.

We’ll be watching Joule closely to see how its discussions with these potential partners evolve.

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