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Biotech Earth Power Science

Biotech Company Making Fossil Fuels With a 'Library' of Bacteria 386

Posted by Soulskill
from the micro-slaves dept.
Saysys sends an excerpt from a story at the Globe and Mail: "In September, a privately held and highly secretive US biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for 'a proprietary organism' – a genetically engineered cyanobacterium that produces liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (US) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, 'fossil fuels on demand.' ... Joule says it now has 'a library' of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has 'proven the process,' has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 US gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year."
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Biotech Company Making Fossil Fuels With a 'Library' of Bacteria

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  • Excellent (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mysidia (191772)

    Now we just need a bacterial fuel additive to eliminate CO2 emissions :)

    • It's a good start but the costs need to be brought down to as cheap as possible.

      Lets get China and India involved ASAP. :)

    • Re:Excellent (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @01:58PM (#34966050)

      The CO2 released by burning this fuel would be CO2 that was taken from the atmosphere not from a hydrocarbon source that was naturally sequestered in the earth. Basically, it's neutral. If the bacteria eats some sort of plant then the CO2 released would be the CO2 the plant took out of the atmosphere. Example, a plant eats 5 CO2 units (sort of like a girth unit to you Brian Regan fans) to grow, the bacteria eats it and turns it into fuel, when burnt it will release 5 CO2 units. Unless you think CO2 magically appears from somewhere else.

      • Sounds great, but doesn't really address the problem of internal combustion engines having only 30% efficiency. Why jump through all those hoops if we could gather electricity with photovoltaic panels and then use much more efficient electrical engines? Does anyone here know how much energy that'd generate per acre versus the bacteria? I mean as long as we're looking for long-term solutions, why not focus on better plans? We're only short of light, infinitely rechargeable batteries or power lines along the

        • Re:Excellent (Score:5, Informative)

          by peragrin (659227) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:37PM (#34966338)

          because photovoltaic are only 10% efficient?

          while I agree electric motors would be far better for personal transports, the problem is storage. You can't store electricity in great enough quantities for it to work well. Until you can get 400 miles fully loaded with less than 1 hour recharge time, on electric motors, they will just not work in the USA. Right now the Tesla roadster has the best range of ~350 miles . driving 25mph with only one very light person on board with no baggage.

          The USA doesn't have the bus, or train infrastructure to support moving lots of people well. Trains roughly take 2-3 times the time it takes a car to go the same distance.

          • The USA doesn't have the bus, or train infrastructure to support moving lots of people well. Trains roughly take 2-3 times the time it takes a car to go the same distance.

            The Acela Express from Boston to NYC takes about the same time as driving, despite the fact that it makes a detour to Providence. But yeah, on the regular routes trains are slow as hell.

            • The Acela Express from Boston to NYC takes about the same time as driving, despite the fact that it makes a detour to Providence. But yeah, on the regular routes trains are slow as hell.

              ... if you live next to the train station on either side.

              For just about everyone else, driving is quicker. For me, by about an hour.

              I do take that train for work every time I have to go to NYC. But it's not because of time, I prefer riding instead of driving that far. Plus "I have a train to catch" is a great way of getting out of the remote office if stuff is running late.

            • The Acela Express from Boston to NYC takes about the same time as driving, despite the fact that it makes a detour to Providence.

              The trip by car is about 225 miles. Figure gas costs $4/gallon. If you've got one of those fuel sucking SUVs that only gets 25 MPG highway, you're paying $36. If you've got a hybrid it's half that much.

              So your family of five is taking a trip to NYC from Boston. SUV: ~$40, Hybrid: ~$20, AmTrak: ~$400. The train would be great if it didn't cost 10 to 20 times as much money.

          • because photovoltaic are only 10% efficient?

            Actually now most are about 20% efficient, if I recall correctly. There are panels that achieve more than 40% efficiency. Probably too costly to mass produce, though, but they exist. Now, given that the sun irradiates one acre with about 5,526,836kW and that the 800 barrels produced every year per acre with that bacteria would amount to 1,360,000kWh, we're looking at even 10% efficient photovoltaic cells producing in less than three hours what the bacteria would in 365 days. How's that for efficiency?

            As for

            • Re:Excellent (Score:4, Interesting)

              by HungryHobo (1314109) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @05:46PM (#34967688)

              ok something seems really really odd with this math.
              reading the article I assumed the 800 barrels per acre wasn't running off incomming solar energy because the numbers seem crazy.

              800 barrels per acre....
              US consumption: 20680000 barrels per day....
              20680000/800 =25850
              25850 acres = 40.390625 square miles
              Area needed for a years worth of americas consumption:14742 square miles
              America, land area:3794101 square miles
              So less than half a percent of the land area of the US would have to be covered for this.
              Frankly this seems far too good to be true given how crap bioethanol et al have turned out to be in the past.

        • Sounds great, but doesn't really address the problem of internal combustion engines having only 30% efficiency.

          Who cares? If the whole thing is carbon-neutral, it seems to me that the net result of 30% vs 60% efficienty on an engine is zero. The bacteria work for free, right?

        • Sounds great, but doesn't really address the problem of internal combustion engines having only 30% efficiency. Why jump through all those hoops if we could gather electricity with photovoltaic panels and then use much more efficient electrical engines? Does anyone here know how much energy that'd generate per acre versus the bacteria? I mean as long as we're looking for long-term solutions, why not focus on better plans? We're only short of light, infinitely rechargeable batteries or power lines along the roads by now.

          You are sort of answering your own question. The "hoops" for bacteria generated fuel are smaller and fewer than the "hoops" for creating an entirely new infrastructure. In addition to the improvements in battery technology and massive new power generation and transmission requirements that you allude to there is also the environmental effects of the mining and transportation of the resources (ex lithium) necessary for all those new batteries and the recycling and waste handling of all the batteries that wil

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Kreigaffe (765218)

          Electrical engines degrade in function MUCH, MUCH faster than IC engines -- when you're talking about vehicles -- because the batteries, no matter how advanced, still degrade. The motors themselves are fine, but it's the batteries that are the weak point.

          They need to be replaced, frequently, are expensive both monetarily and looking at energy-to-produce. compared to just hunks of metal and plastic for an IC engine? Very pricey..

          now into that "aw, really?" equation, throw in that the batteries are much sl

          • by toddestan (632714)

            While you do have to worry about the batteries in an electric vehicle, I anticipate a lot lower maintenance costs overall. Internal combustion engines are complicated devices, with lots of moving parts and various fluids that have to be pumped around, monitored, and changed when they get dirty. You have valves and timing belts/chains. You have a complex transmission to transfer the power to the wheels, and has to be able to change directions to reverse because the IC motor can't. You have an exhaust sys

      • Unless of course they've engineered the bacteria to eat fossil fuels. Wouldn't that be ripe!

        Typically, Cyanobacteria utilize sunlight, water, and CO2, and then "exhale" oxygen, under aerobic conditions. The source of the CO2 is of interest here. According to Joule Unlimited, the source is "waste CO2", whatever that means. References to their super secret plans are linked to from Wikipedia (#19) from when it was first patented (sorry, can't seem to paste link here).

        • Unless of course they've engineered the bacteria to eat fossil fuels. Wouldn't that be ripe!

          Yeah. Then they'd be like fuel cell engines!

    • by eexaa (1252378)

      If I got it correctly, the bacteria can actually use CO2 from the air. Which is actually pretty nice, as we can finally have closed carbon cycle, if this _somehow_ _replaces_ fossil fuels.

  • by elucido (870205) * on Saturday January 22, 2011 @01:51PM (#34965994)

    And invest 50 billion dollars into emerging technologies.

  • by CompMD (522020)

    There was just an NCIS episode [cbs.com] about this!

  • Not done yet (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @01:58PM (#34966052)

    Scaling to commercial production is the hardest part of any biotech reactor setup. Outside the lab these need to survive incidental biocontamination, survive in high waste product concentration and variable temperatures long enough to produce economical amounts of diesel. Fixing all these problems can take just as long as the initial research and grind away at investment.

    • Water has a pretty high thermal mass so I don't think variable temperatures are anything to worry about. Biocontamination can be dealt with fairly easily, by sequestration and redundancy. Waste product removal is a halfway interesting problem, but I'd bet Kevin Costner is working on it as we speak.

      • by MattskEE (925706)

        Water has a pretty high thermal mass so I don't think variable temperatures are anything to worry about

        Sure water has a high thermal mass, but solar power irradiates the earth to the tune of ~1kW/m^2. That's why you can use a solar pool cover (essentially heavy duty bubble wrap - allows radiation in, limits convection out) to heat an 8 foot deep pool to over 105F on a hot summer day (in my experience). Most bio-reactors must have actively controlled temperatures to optimize production. The reality is it h

  • by nysus (162232) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @01:59PM (#34966058)

    I'll believe it when I see it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No it's not. The price may be too good to be true, but the method is valid. It's been known since the days of the oil crisis that you can use cyano bacteria (aka algae) to produce hydrocarbons at a cost equivalent to less than $100 per barrel. With inflation the limit where it becomes profitable is probably higher and not cheap enough to sustain the American middle class lifestyle, but it's definitely possible to get loads of fuel at non-astronomic costs.

      Without having read TFA (hey it's /.) I'd guess that

    • by Bombula (670389) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @06:40PM (#34968040)
      Definitely too good to be true. The energy contained in 15,000 gallons of biodiesel ~= 10,000 gallons x 133,000 BTU/gallon x .000293 kwh/BTU = 0.58 MM kwh The energy falling on one acre of land in the tropics ~= 5kwh/m2/day x 365 days/year x 4046 m2/acre = 7.4 MM kwh/year/acre So they're capturing 8% of ALL solar energy falling on each acre of land in their fuel, assuming they are in the tropics and not in the continental United States. The efficiency limit for photosynthesis is around 14%, which isn't calculated on a per-acre basis, but on a molecular exposure basis. Even if you could cover each acre with pure chlorophyll, the conversion efficiency would not exceed 14%. So they are claiming they will exceed 50% of the theoretical photosynthetic limit AFTER all the energy and efficiency loss of processing, for a net yield of 15,000 gallons? Total BS. If they claimed 1000-2000 gallons, maybe, but with their claims you can bet it's a pump-and-dump green stock scam.
  • by jvillain (546827) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:10PM (#34966142)
    How many times have people made bold claims like this? I'm guessing they are looking for investors err suckers. It's news when you have a commercially viable plant up and running. When I say commercially viable I don't mean with a $4 a gallon subsidy. Those yield figures are going to be wildly optimistic.
    • RTFA: "Joule began to generate buzz toward the end of 2010. When U.S. Senator John Kerry toured the company’s labs in October, he called the technology “a potential game-changer.” He noted, ironically, that the company’s science is so advanced that it can’t qualify for federal grants or subsidies: The government’s definition of biofuels requires the use of raw-material feedstock." I'm not saying that they're totally on the level, and that this will all work as advertised
  • these guys have patented an organism which can inhale CO2 and use the energy from sunlight to turn it into hydrocarbons. Perhaps god will step up and point out s/he can claim prior art for inventing plants..
  • So how do they power their own facility? Do they have a filling station for employee use?

  • ...to be allowed to be patented.

    Just imagine: Every couple would have to pay a licensing fee..

    • by game kid (805301)

      Every couple would have to pay a licensing fee..

      ...and swingers will pay for CALs [wikipedia.org] to swap!

  • If it turns out that's how real "fossil" fuel is created underground... Now there's a secret worth keeping..

  • I'm kindof afraid that current oil producers will want this project disappeared&forgotten..

    • by chrisG23 (812077)
      My first thought (if this claim is true) was how soon until the engineers, scientists and owners of this company start disappearing, dying in car accidents or having cancer............
      • by Arlet (29997)

        If there's a profit in this, the oil companies would just buy the technology and use it themselves.

    • by u38cg (607297)
      Are you kidding? Something which means they can carry on their business indefinitely but without the hassle of having to deal with Chavez and Putin? If I ran an oil company I would be breaking out the Cuban cigars and ordering a bunch of sexually liberated virgins right now.
      • Exactly. OPEC will not be pleased with this but processing and distributing hydrocarbons is what the oil companies do. Why would they object to a new source of feedstock? Do you think they like having to suck it out of the ground with increasing difficulty at locations controlled by criminals and loons?
  • by overshoot (39700) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:19PM (#34966206)
    800 barrels per acre per year. Hmmm. US oil imports run 15 million barrels per day, or about 5.5 billion barrels per year. Assuming that the 800 barrels per acre per year is accurate (such estimates are generally a optimistic) replacement would require 6.8 million acres, or about 11,000 square miles. With water, of course -- maybe Louisiana and Mississippi have a future after all; that would be about 20% of the land area of either state.

    On the other hand, if we could just convert kudzu to oil they'd be all set right now.

    • by u38cg (607297)
      Globally, that doesn't seem unreasonable. US demand for oil is far higher than it needs to be and it could be managed down quite easily. Add that to world trade reform of agriculture and this could be perfectly manageable. Implement cap and trade while we're at it and I might just restore my faith in humanity.
    • Let's also hope that the energy it takes to maintain and harvest an acre of bacteria byproduct is not a significant fraction of the output.

      Presuming that this works over a fairly narrow range of temperatures, that means heating/cooling/shading for periods where solar flux isn't perfect. It also means you have 11,000 square miles of oil slick you have to keep from getting into the ground water. And, at a certain point, will we worry about evaporation and smell of the plants?

      This would be exceptionally aweso

    • by Local ID10T (790134) <ID10T.L.USER@gmail.com> on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:38PM (#34966348) Homepage

      800 barrels per acre per year. Hmmm. US oil imports run 15 million barrels per day, or about 5.5 billion barrels per year. Assuming that the 800 barrels per acre per year is accurate (such estimates are generally a optimistic) replacement would require 6.8 million acres, or about 11,000 square miles. With water, of course -- maybe Louisiana and Mississippi have a future after all; that would be about 20% of the land area of either state.

      Lets round that up to 50,000 square miles to account for support infrastructure. That's still not a bad investment for producing the fuel needed to power the USA. Additionally, consider the wealth redistribution from producing fuel domestically instead of importing it. Assuming the technology actually works and is sufficiently scalable, even the multi-decade build out required would be worthwhile.

    • by jpmorgan (517966) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:47PM (#34966422) Homepage

      If you consider total consumption, not just imports, it would require around 15,000 square miles. However, the US has over half a million square miles of active cropland, and about 135,000 square miles just corn.

      In other words, if you replaced ~3% of America's farming, or 12% of America's corn production with this type of hydrocarbon farming, you could replace all of America's oil consumption. Stick that in your corn pipe and smoke it, corn-based-ethanol producers.

      • A point of optimism and a point of pessimism: the bacteria do not use a biomass feedstock so agricultural land is not needed. However it appears that by "waste CO2" they mean a feedstock of CO2 in higher concentrations than what is already in the atmosphere. It doesn't say what the concentration is so I don't know what the options are for obtaining feed CO2.
    • by tmosley (996283)
      Brackish or salt water works for the water input. This means water is NOT a limiting factor. There are dozens of giant brackish or saltwater aquifers under desert wasteland in the Western US.

      And you really think that harvesting kudzu, and then processing them WITH BACTERIA is going to be more efficient than siphoning off an essentially finished product from a slightly glorified lake? That does nothing but add extra labor intensive steps. Further, there will be waste left, which has to be cleaned up
  • If these claim are correct, the resulting products might resemble current 'fossil' fuels but of course they are anything but fossil...

  • Let me guess. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:27PM (#34966274) Homepage

    They're looking for investors, right?

  • of the pump and dump variety. Would it? :) Ahem.

  • They were saying, in July 2009, http://gigaom.com/cleantech/the-solar-biofuel-hybrid-joule-biotechnologies-launches/ that they were going to build a pilot plant in 2010, and have the initial commercial-scale plant up in 2012.

    All through 2010, their press releases talk about awards and management, funding and P.R. I would have expected "Pilot plant ground broken", "Pilot plant going online", "Pilot plant now giving free diesel to all plant employees, outside customers can pay $1.00 per gallon at plant fill

  • What is the patent number of the alleged patent?
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @02:36PM (#34966330) Homepage

    Their web site [jouleunlimited.com] just screams "scam" Also, that $30 per barrel figure is bogus: "We estimate our costs for diesel to be as low as $30 per barrel equivalent. This is based on an industrial-scale plant of at least 1,000 acres, producing our commercial target of 15,000 gallons diesel/acre/year, and taking into account our total expected costs and existing, applicable credits.". In other words, even if it works, it's a scheme to exploit subsidies.

    Also, they announced this before, 18 months ago [nerdmodo.com], and still don't have a demo. They should at least be showing a panel or two by now.

    It's not a fundamentally hopeless idea. It's basically a scheme for photosynthesis inside what look like hot-water solar heating panels. Photosynthesis is neither fast nor efficient. The theoretical maximum efficiency for solar powered photosynthesis is 11%. [wikipedia.org] That's an upper limit, and the Joule people don't give the actual number for their process, which has to be lower. Photovoltaic panels are already above 11%.

    It's not clear that their system would be much cheaper than photovoltaics per unit area. Half the cost of solar panel installations is in the installation job itself. Solar hot water heating panels that last for a decade or two aren't cheap. (The low-end ones tend to rot, be torn up in storms, or crack as the plasticizers are cooked out.) These guys aren't just heating; they have a chemical reaction going inside the things. They'll probably have to flush their system occasionally, and they'll need more pumps, plumbing, and controls than simple hot water panels.

    Ethanol from cellulose (not corn) is probably more promising. That works now, but it's marginal on cost. It runs off agricultural waste like straw or cheap crops grown in open fields; you don't have to build giant farms of panels.

    • I'm with you. It is definitely more "scam" than anything else. Everything I've read about using genetically modified organisms to produce fuel inevitably run into how to get the fuel out before the concentration kills the organism that produced it.

      Technology like the Fischer-Tropsch [wikipedia.org] method was proven viable using coal years ago. It isn't that big a step to use biomass. I'm watching companies like Range Fuels [rangefuels.com] and research on plants like Miscanthus Giganteus [illinois.edu]. They have much more believable claims.

      Inevita

  • I am very much looking forward to not being beholden to various despicable middle eastern regimes simply because of what lies underneath their feet.

    However i do wonder if those same places will remain valuable simply because of what lies above their heads, ie. the sun.
  • This makes me wonder about an economy that takes biological material and uses it to fuel inanimate extension and use.
    It seems a little like the Matrix, where people are just biofuel for the machines. Since we have IBM Watson , bot nets, robots that kill, and drones that can operate independently, the Terminators need a continuous fuel supply to eradicate the last of those pests that infect their energy chain.
    -- John Connor
  • by presidenteloco (659168) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @03:08PM (#34966598)

    World crude oil consumption = 86,000,000 Barrels/day = 31,390,000,000 Barrels/year

    divided by 800 Barrels / Acre = 39,237,500 Acres

    = 157,788 square kilometres

    = 1/4 the size of Texas

    = 29,274,211 American Football Fields

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