Joule Unlimited, Inc.

Renewable Fuel

Shareholders in Portfolio Company 
Flagship Ventures, RUSNANO and other venture investors

Industry Sector 
Energy Efficiency

Production Location 
Headquarters: Bedford, Massachusetts, USA
Demonstration plant: Hobbes, New Mexico, USA

Investment Started:  2011

Total Budget

17.92  bln rubles
Co-investment by RUSNANO
1.10  bln rubles

Industrial production of ethanol, diesel fuel components and other liquid hydrocarbons by the processing of carbon dioxide using genetically modified cyanobacteria and sunlight

Joule Unlimited is a startup company operating at the interface between energy efficiency and biotechnology. The company is carrying out research into genetic engineering of cyanobacteria, designing and commercializing technology for the industrial production of ethanol and diesel fuel. Joule Unlimited was founded in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs. It is headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts (USA) and is a subsidiary of Joule Global Holdings B.V.
 
The production technology uses genetically modified bacteria as cellular factories. Purposeful changes are made to the genome of one species of cyanobacteria. The metabolism of the bacteria is altered in such a way that, instead of converting the carbon dioxide, which they absorb, into oxygen, the bacteria convert it into specific hydrocarbons (such as ethanol).
 
The approach used by Joule Unlimited to the production of ethanol and diesel sets the company apart from many competitors producing similar products by the fermentation of biomass (corn, agricultural waste, wood chips). The company’s technology has no need for biomass. Instead, it recycles greenhouse gases into hydrocarbon fuels.

Areas of application

  • Industrial production of bioethanol and biodiesel

Market

  • Fuel and chemical industries

Competitive advantages

The technology is still under development, but a number of benefits are already clear.

  • There is no dependence on biomass (feedstocks such as wood chips and agricultural waste), so Joule Unlimited is not subject to threats associated with biomass prices and supply, which affect all existing producers of hydrocarbon fuels from renewable sources.
  • The raw material used by Joule Unlimited is carbon dioxide (CO2), industrial emissions of which represent a substantial burden on the environment.
  • The only other resources needed for the production of hydrocarbons using the technology are non-agricultural land, non-potable water (including waste water and salt water), solar energy and electricity.
  • There are no obvious constraints on scaling of the technology.

As a result the technology promises to substantially reduce burden on the environment without consuming resources used in agriculture.
 
Ethanol or diesel fuel, which are produced using the technology, are mainstream goods with generally recognized properties and markets that are highly developed and global. Also, the technology platform developed by Joule Unlimited could be used in the future to produce not only ethanol and fuel components, but also a number of other products, the biological origin of which will be of decisive importance for buyers.

The core of the technology used by Joule Unlimited is a technique in synthetic biology: the metabolic engineering of cyanobacteria (blue-green unicellular algae) to produce ethanol and diesel fuel based on n-alkanes.

Joule Unlimited has a strong team of researchers working to create genetically modified strains of bacteria and, specifically, to develop strains of cyanobacteria that can efficiently produce end-products. The company’s objective is to produce 25,000 gallons of ethanol and about 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre per year (about 23.5 liters of ethanol and 14 liters of diesel fuel per square meter per year).

In addition to maximizing the performance of the productive strain of bacteria, the research team is working to raise the resilience of such genetically modified bacteria to a broad range of external factors, including fluctuations in daily and seasonal temperatures, acidity (pH factor), salinity, and large variation in the flux density of solar energy, as well as increasing resistance of the bacteria to biological contamination, etc.

As well as creating a superproducer strain, successful commercialization of the technology depends on designing a bioreactor and industrial unit, which can make the entire process of production of useful products sustainable and replicable at minimum capital and operating costs. These tasks are being addressed at a company site near Hobbs, New Mexico, where Joule Unlimited launched a first demonstration plant in 2012.

The research stage is now approaching completion and work is starting to test the technology in real conditions. The company has 30 registered patents and has submitted 113 patent applications.