Joule Biotechnologies Picks Site For Pilot Ethanol Plant in the Desert

12/23/09

Joule Biotechnologies has been busy since we last spoke to the company’s leadership around the time it first started talking publicly in July. The Cambridge, MA-based company, which develops fuels and chemicals in a process that mimics photosynthesis, has been advancing toward commercialization. I got the update from Bill Sims, the firm’s CEO.

For starters, Joule has selected a site for its pilot ethanol production operation where there’s a lot of sun in the American southwest, Sims said. But he declined to specify the location of the pilot site because at least as of December 14 the company had not garnered a local government board’s approval for the operation. Barring unforeseen opposition to the facility, the company plans to announce the location in January. The pilot facility is important because it will help the firm gather more data to back up some of its lofty claims: That its process is capable of making ethanol at $50 per barrel and its annual yields could reach 25,000 gallons acre. The process has previously been demonstrated in small-scale lab experiments.

The pilot facility is expected to test how different photosynthetic organisms perform in the desert climate of the southwest as well as the impacts of different sources of water and carbon dioxide, Sims said. The photosynthetic organisms are used in the firm’s devices called SolarConverters, which will also contain CO2, brackish water, and nutrients. (Joule still won’t tell me what these genetically engineered photosynthetic organisms are exactly.) The converters are designed to capture sunlight, which is a key ingredient for converting the mixture into ethanol. The company’s technology—which it calls “Helioculture”—is noteworthy because it doesn’t require the use of drinking water, food crops such as corn or soybeans, or fermentation, like other methods for producing ethanol.

Joule still plans to link its industrial-scale production plants to facilities that produce lots of waste CO2 such as cement plants, but the firm’s pilot facility will not be connected to a major CO2 emitter because it doesn’t need to be in order to produce ethanol at the scale planned, according to Sims.

What does Joule mean by the “nutrients” and/or the “micro nutrients” it uses in its systems? (The company declined to reveal what these nutrients are back in July, and at least one reader pointed out that these nutrients could be expensive and drive up the firm’s costs of production.) Yet last week the firm told me that those nutrients are phosphorus, nitrogen, and various trace metals—all of which the firm says are quite cheap and abundant. Indeed, phosphorous and nitrogen are ingredients in most fertilizers and play important roles in plant growth, so it makes sense for them to land in Joule’s process that mimics photosynthesis.

However, the firm hasn’t been clear about how it’s going to finance all this work. Joule is only saying that it has backing from a top-tier venture firm in 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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