Peak Oil Who Cares?

by Dave Schuler on July 15, 2011

Here’s a technology that I hadn’t heard of. It seems that Joule Unlimited has genetically engineered a cyanobacterium (they won’t say which one) that can produce liquid hydrocarbons from sunlight, air, and water. The water can be waste water, salt water, pretty much any water. The air should have plenty of carbon dioxide (something I’m told we have too much of). The hydrocarbons produced don’t have to be oil (as some other biofuel technologies produce). They could be ethanol, gasoline, or diesel. No refining required.

Joule has leased 1,200 acres of land in New Mexico for a pilot program:

In Massachusetts, Joule reported that they have signed a lease for 1,200 acres in Lea County, New Mexico, with the potential to scale the project up to 5,000 acres for production of renewable diesel and ethanol directly from sunlight and waste CO2.

The agreement with Lea County is the first to be completed as part of Joule’s production facility siting program. Joule stated that Lea County meets their production requirements, including high solar insolation, access to non-potable water and waste CO2. In addition, Joule could benefit from $19 million in state incentives to facilitate operations at commercial scale.

What’s their target for costs?

“At full-scale production, Joule expects to deliver diesel and ethanol for as little as $20/bble and $0.60/gallon respectively, including current subsidies,” the company now says.

Whoa…wasn’t that $30 per barrel diesel, before? Did Joule just drop its costs by 33 percent? Sure ‘nuf.

A peer reviewed article in Photosynthesis Research has confirmed JU’s potential to produce 15,000 gallons per acre per year. Let’s see. Just for fun let’s assume they can achieve 10% of that. 1,500 gallons per acre X 1,200 acres is 1.8 million gallons per year. The U. S. uses something like 10 million barrels per day. 42 gallons per barrel, 365 days per year… Sounds doable to me.

This is a technology worth keeping tabs on. Potentially game-changing.

There an old article on this technology here.

Hat tip: Tigerhawk

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds July 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Yeah but once the microorganisms escape into the ocean it’ll be billions of gallons.

Dave Schuler July 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Perhaps that’s why they picked New Mexico.

john personna July 16, 2011 at 3:01 am

I’ve heard in the past that it is really hard to control genetic drift in these things. You can do it in a closed system, but that is expensive. In an open system, nature rapidly optimizes for something else.

Or to put it another way, the oceans are already filled with the “winners.”

It may be that they pull it off, but I’d wait for a few years of commercial production before I really partied.

(Peak Oil might be technically “true” while not worrying me too much. Rapid production crashes seem unlikely at this point, and with decades of adjustment time, either people will find something else, or learn efficiency. Heck, people might even learn to ride bikes.)

Al Fin (Energy Blog) July 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

The best way to look at Joule Unlimited is as one of dozens of startups that are trying to genomically engineer micro-organisms in order to produce fuels and chemical feedstocks from biomass. There will not be a single magic bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of demand-supply mismatch.

Economist Julian Simon spent as much time thinking about the problem as anyone, and his free online book Ultimate Resource 2 looks at the wide range of “scarce resources” and why they are not a catastrophic problem.

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