Audi Places Its Biofuel Bets On Joule
By Martin LaMonica
If there’s a technology that has over promised and under delivered, it’s advanced biofuels. But there are signs that startups are making progress.
Boston-area biofuel startup Joule and Audi today announced a partnership, where the automaker will test and validate Joule’s fuels for the auto industry.
Last week, Joule commissioned a demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico for its radical approach of directly making ethanol from sunlight and CO2 on a fraction of the land used with traditional approaches.
The deal with Audi helps validate Joule’s technology and gives Audi a potentially important relationship as it seeks to be a carbon-neutral driving. “Joule and the fuels it is developing can ultimately enable sustainable mobility, as its highly-efficient process consumes waste CO2 emissions, avoids depletion of natural resources and doesn’t require agricultural feedstock or arable land,” says Reiner Manglod, the head of environmental products at Audi in a statement.
Joule’s biotech-heavy process is unique among the many approaches for making biofuels in a way that doesn’t create competition with food production. Rather than grow and harvest biomass, such as wood chips or algae, and then process that into fuel, Joule has engineered microorganisms to secrete fuel and chemicals, including ethanol and diesel.
The microbes grow in closed glass bioreactors and are fed waste CO2, sunlight, and nutrients. As the fuel is produced, it’s separated from the growing solution and collected.
At a pilot lab in Texas, it’s been able to grow ethanol outdoor at a rate of 8,000 gallons per acre per year. That’s vastly more land-efficient than corn ethanol and better than the highest claims of cellulosic ethanol companies. Joule expects that its first commercial plants will be able to produce at 10,000 gallons per acre per year and ultimately 25,000 acres per acre per year at a price of $1.28 a gallon.
Joule’s bioreactor design is modular so if it can operate at sufficient yield at this four-acre site in New Mexico, it can scale up to larger volumes only by adding more of the same modules. The company raised $70 million in January to finance construction of its demo plant and has raised $110 million in total.
Its plans are to start building “alpha” plants that will be about 1,000 acres in size, Joule’s director of marketing Felicia Spagnioli says. What’s needed is a location with lots of sunlight, non-potable water which is later recycled, and a source of CO2. The company is in discussions with locating plants near power plants and cement factories where the scrubbed gases can be piped into its bioreactors.
Joule was founded specifically to sidestep the failures of previous biofuel companies, particularly algae-based biofuel efforts.
In the late 2000s, oil prices were nearing $150 a barrel and investor enthusiasm for green technologies was at an all-time high. A recently passed Renewable Fuel Standard had created demand for biofuels, both corn-based ethanol and later, fuels made from other sources. It created a race to build the technology for making fuel from non-food sources, whether it was ethanol from wood chips and jet fuel from algae.
In the end, things didn’t go so smoothly. Cellulosic ethanol is still made in small quantities and a number of once-ambitious startups have gone out of business. Some researchers say algae-based fuel is still ten years away.
But advanced biofuels are most definitely not dead and Joule isn’t alone in making progress toward making fuel without biting into food production.
Sapphire Energy earlier this month began production of a drop-in replacement oil made from algae. The company’s demo plant in Columbus, New Mexico, which uses an open-pond design, is projected to produce 100 barrels of oil a day by the end of 2014. Once it proves it can operate at the scale, it expects to make a larger commercial-scale plant.
Meanwhile, Kior last month said it received EPA approval for a drop-in replacement fuel from wood chips using a pyrolysis process adopted from the oil refining business. The company plans to start production at a facility in Columbus, Mississippi and start selling renewable fuel this fall.