Biofuel Survivor Joule Lands New CEO, Plans Larger CO2-to-Fuel Plants
The list of advanced biofuel companies that failed to live up to their ambitions is long and discouraging. Joule Unlimited, though, appears to be making progress despite the headwinds of skeptical investors and, more recently, falling oil prices.
The Bedford, MA-based company last week said that Serge Tchuruk joined as CEO. He was the chairman of French telecom company Alcatel during its merger with Lucent until 2008 and was previously CEO of oil giant Total.
Tchuruk hadn’t even heard of Joule until a few months ago (he joined the board in July.) But he joined because he was intrigued by the potential of Joule’s technology, which could produce fuels from waste carbon dioxide and sunlight.
“When I first heard the story of Joule, I was sort of perplexed,” he says. “Then I started to get convinced that it was a very serious subject and Joule has a fair chance of coming to market and delivering what it said it would.”
Biofuels are typically made by growing a crop, such as corn, algae, or wood chips, and then processing that biomass to make fuel. Joule has a completely different approach: it grows microorganisms that produce the fuel directly. These bugs, which grow in water, are fed carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients in plastic bioreactors. The fuel is continuously siphoned off as the green-colored cyanobacteria grow.
The key to their process is genetic engineering. The microbes they grow were genetically tuned to consume carbon dioxide and secrete specific molecules, such as ethanol or diesel. The carbon dioxide would be supplied from the flue gases of a power plant or other polluter.
Not only is it a radically different approach, it’s a big financial bet. The company has raised $160 million, led by Flagship Ventures.
Joule has been operating a demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico that produces ethanol, and says that in recent months, the results of its tests show that the company is nearing commercialization. “We know it works,” says Tom Einar Jensen, the head of corporate development at the company. “We are getting close to commercial levels of productivity, not taking into consideration subsidies.”
In July, the company got approval from the EPA to use its genetically modified microbe for biofuel or chemical production—a significant requirement to commercializing its technology and the first time the EPA has approved this type of GMO for commercial use.
But even with compelling technology, how does a startup enter the fuels market? After all, many biofuel companies have shifted gears and focused making chemicals from plants, such as sugar cane, because chemicals command higher prices. Many investors, meanwhile, have grown disillusioned with the slow pace of progress in making fuels from non-food sources, such as algae or wood chips.
Tchuruk says Joule will continue to focus on fuels and scale up its operations in phases, which its modular reactors allow it to do. To build a very large-scale operation, it would likely partner with another company, he says.
Joule still has a long way to go to show that it’s radically different technology is commercially viable. But among the long list of advanced biofuel to sprout up in the past 10 years, it’s one worth following.
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