Renewable Fuel — Without Biomass

by Richard T. Stuebi

In recent years, there’s been a major push for renewable fuels — to reduce our needs for petroleum, as well as to reduce the carbon footprint associated with burning petroleum-based fuels.

The common thread of all of these renewable fuels has been the use of some sort of carbonaceous feedstock — typically biological organisms, till now agricultural crops like corn and soybean, and moving towards cellulosic wastes and algae — from which to produce a liquid fuel for vehicles. In other words, sunlight begets botanical growth begets fuel.

Now comes word of a company emerging from stealth-mode called Joule Biotechnologies, based in Cambridge MA and funded by Flagship Ventures, which has developed what the company is calling the “Helioculture” process for making fuels directly from the photosynthetic conversion of sunlight and CO2 — without requiring any biomass (nor any water, for that matter).

According to its press release, the company’s “SolarFuel” will satisfy current vehicle specifications. Although still a few years away from commercial production, Joule is projecting yields of more than 20,000 gallons per acre per year at long-run economics competitive with oil at $50/barrel.

Of course, entrepreneurs and inventors love to tout new ideas with great potential — potential that is often never achieved. But this idea at least has considerable intuitive appeal, and is very out-of-the-box relative to much of the innovation being pursued in the transportation fuels arena, which makes Joule definitely worth watching in the coming years.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Effective September 1, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

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