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Driving a biofuel forward: Joule Unlimited gets a boost for its novel method of making fuel out of light, air, and water.

Joule Unlimited, a startup whose engineered microorganisms produce ethanol from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, is taking important steps forward. It has a new demonstration plant, and it recently formed a partnership with Audi to develop and test the fuel.

Most biofuels companies make fuel by processing some form of biomass, such as corn, grass, or algae, often with the aid of microorganisms. Joule's approach is to eliminate as many of the intermediate steps as possible.

Joule has taken a microorganism (the company won't say what) and introduced combinations of genes so they produce ethanol from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight. To ensure that its metabolism is geared toward making ethanol rather than keeping the organism alive, the company has removed as many of its original genes as is possible without killing it.

In small-scale tests, Joule has shown that its approach could produce 8,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, a few times more than other advanced-biofuels companies have achieved. But now as Joule moves its technology to market, the company says it has found more economical methods that have the potential to produce 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. It's also developing organisms that produce diesel.

Crucial to the new approach are the transparent tubes in which Joule grows the microorganisms. In the company's original design, the containers resembled solar panels--they were flat, thin, and rectangular. Partly to allow air to move over them for cooling, the panels were mounted on metal frames on concrete pads. "We saw very quickly that the design would not be cost-competitive," says David Berry, a partner at Flagship Ventures, which has provided much of Joule's funding.

Joule's solution was to do away with the concrete foundations, metal frames, and solar-panel-like structures and use plastic tubes instead. The tubes are a couple of meters wide and up to 50 meters long. "The new design is much larger, and you can lay it directly on the ground. That leads to a huge reduction in cost," says William Sims, Joule's CEO.

Joule plans to work out the final design for the system at its new four-acre demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico. One challenge other biofuels companies face is that the economics of their processes won't be clear until they are demonstrated in full-scale commercial facilities, with large vats for producing biofuel. Sims says Joule's approach can be validated with just a few of its plastic solar converters, reducing the amount of financing needed. "It's pure replication," Sims says. "What works for four acres will also work for 5,000 acres."

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Title Annotation:Upfront
Author:Bullis, Kevin
Publication:MIT Technology Review
Article Type:Company overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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