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New genetically-engineered cyanobacterium produces and secretes renewable fuels without the middleman, biomass  (Source:
Genetically-engineered cyanobacterium eliminates biomass step to produce ready-to-use diesel fuel or ethanol

A biotechnology company in Massachusetts has created a genetically engineered organism capable of producing diesel fuel or ethanol, which can be used to run cars and jet engines. 

Joule Unlimited, a Cambridge-based producer of alternative energy technologies that was founded in 2007, developed a genetically engineered organism called a cyanobacterium, which uses water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce and secrete renewable fuels.  

Until now, researchers have created fuel from solar energy through the use of corn and algae. But creating ethanol from corn or extracting fuel from algae on a large scale can be costly due to biomass. The process consists of having to grow tons of algae or corn, harvest it and destroy it in order to extract the fuel, which must then be treated before it can be used. 

But according to biologist Dan Robertson, Joule Unlimited's top scientist, the cyanobacterium eliminates biomass from the equation when producing renewable fuels. The organism is genetically engineered to secrete a "completed product," which is identical to ethanol or diesel fuel. In addition, it is not destroyed in the process of producing these fuels, and can continuously create more. The cyanobacterium used is "found everywhere" and less complex than algae, making it easier to genetically manipulate.  

Joule Unlimited claims that the cyanobacterium can create 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually. Also, the company says it can do this at $30 a barrel. The plan is to build facilities close to power plants so that their cyanobacteria can consume waste carbon dioxide, making the organism an environmentally friendly addition to the oil industry. 

In addition, the cyanobacteria are housed in flat, solar panel-like bioreactors with grooved, thin panels for both light absorption and fuel collection. The bioreactors are modules that allow for the building of arrays as small or large "as land allows" at facilities.

"We make some lofty claims, all of which we believe, all which we've validated, all of which we've shown to investors," said Joule Chief Executive Bill Sims. "If we're half right, this revolutionizes the world's largest industry, which is the oil and gas industry. And if we're right, there's no reason why this technology can't change the world."  

While Joule Unlimited seems confident in its new organism, others aren't so sure that the new fuel-producing cyanobacterium will work. For example, National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientist Phillip Pienkos calculated the information from Joule's paper on the study, and said that eliminating the biomass step creates problems when recovering the fuel. Specifically, it leaves small amounts of fuel in relatively large amount of water producing a "sheen." He believes the company will have problems recovering large amounts of fuel efficiently

"I think they're trading one set of problems for another," said Pienkos. 

But Robertson doesn't seem to agree with Pienkos' criticism. In fact, Robertson described a day in the future when he will own a Ferrari and fill its tank with Joule fuel. He plans to prove all naysayers wrong when he hits the gas pedal on his new vehicle, showing how well it runs on Joule's fuel.  

"I wasn't kidding about the Ferrari," said Robertson. 

Sims feels the same way about Joule's new organism, suggesting that critics are too closed-minded and behind the times to accept such technology yet. 

"There's always skeptics for breakthrough technologies," said Sims. "And they can ride home on their horse and use their abacus to calculate their checkbook balance."

Joule Unlimited plans to begin building a 10-acre demonstration facility this year, and hopes to be operating commercially as soon as two years. 

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RE: ehh...
By therealnickdanger on 2/28/2011 1:09:23 PM , Rating: 2
I'll be more excited when you tell me where I can fill my car up with it

Forget that. Tell me where I can get some of this bacteria so I can make my own fuel at home out of my trash! :)

RE: ehh...
By surt on 2/28/2011 1:21:14 PM , Rating: 1
I don't think that will work out so well. At 15K gallons per acre / year, one fully used acre is only producing enough (auto only!) fuel for about 15-20 people. And most people at home have less than a quarter acre of open land, which means that you'd have to have a plant covering somewhere between 1/5 and 1/3 of your total yard space to produce your fuel for the year. You'd almost certainly be happier covering every inch of your roof with solar panels and buying a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle.

RE: ehh...
By Manch on 2/28/2011 1:53:20 PM , Rating: 3
You'd almost certainly be happier covering every inch of your roof with solar panels and buying a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle.

Not true, this would eliminate my yard, and my need to mow the lawn, and support my drag racing habit! Can't use a hybrid for that!

RE: ehh...
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:20:14 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah a lot of performance guys have been adopting E85 due to 12-13:1 compression ratios they can easily run with it.

RE: ehh...
By Manch on 2/28/2011 2:39:38 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, I'm not sure how that would work for my setup. Shopping for a built short block right now. I'm running a whipple HO kit on a 3V 4.6. Looking to up it to 16PSI so I'm keeping my compression at around 8.9.

RE: ehh...
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:51:12 PM , Rating: 2
If you run E85, it also has a cooling effect which lets you run more boost without detonation. Or add more compression. Then add meth injection for even more boost.

From what I read from the FI guys, they love E85. Provided you have the wallet to support it. Essentially race gas for cheap. Granted your taxes are currently paying to subsidize it.

A guy here in town is running a 454 LSX block at about 10.5:1. He's about to slap a F1C on top of it along with his existing 400 shot of nitrous. Bottom end is built to handle 2000 hp. And he's not running E85 either.

RE: ehh...
By Manch on 2/28/2011 3:33:47 PM , Rating: 2
I just found out I have orders to Norway, so I need to stay on pump gas. Plus the 4.6 3V motors love boost as long as the compression stays low enough. 8.9 seems to be the magic number for whipples on my engine. Turbo setup I'd probably go lower. I may do meth for cooling tho. I'm trying to keep my car street/strip.

RE: ehh...
By Alexvrb on 2/28/2011 8:46:22 PM , Rating: 2
E85 is less prone to preignition so yeah, more compression, more boost, both, whatever. But be aware that it has less volumetric energy, so you need to spray more of it to get the same power. So might need to upsize injectors to get the most of it.

Side note: LSX racing blocks are awesome.

RE: ehh...
By BioHazardous on 2/28/2011 2:31:51 PM , Rating: 5
By comparison, 1 acre of corn used to produce ethanol yields about 350 gallons of ethanol. When you factor in fuel used to manage the land and harvest the corn, it's an obvious losing proposition.

Soybeans at their best produce 100 gallons of diesel per acre, and obviously worse than corn no matter how you look at it.

Theoretical yields from algae are upwards of 5,000 gallons of diesel per acre.

So we can conclude that cyanobacteria if they can produce 15k gallons per acre, they would be considerably better than the alternatives our government continues to waste money on to subsidize. (not saying algae is a waste, it's still a much better option than corn and soybeans).

It's a step in the right direction IMO and a great advancement/technology.

RE: ehh...
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:52:39 PM , Rating: 2
Good numbers and agreed.

If the administration actually focused on a real solution like this, I might actually give them some applause. But it won't happen so my hands will stay silent.

RE: ehh...
By CowKing on 3/4/2011 8:37:08 PM , Rating: 2
....they would be considerably better than the alternatives our government continues to waste money on to subsidize

Actually, they waste more money on fossil fuels than other alternatives.

You also forgot about switchgrass.

RE: ehh...
By Solandri on 2/28/2011 5:14:58 PM , Rating: 2
At 15K gallons per acre / year, one fully used acre is only producing enough (auto only!) fuel for about 15-20 people. [...] You'd almost certainly be happier covering every inch of your roof with solar panels and buying a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle.

15k gal * 3.78 l/gal * 35.86 MJ/l = 2.03 million MJ per acre-year

Figure solar generates 130 Watts peak per m^2, 75 Watts average for 12 hr/day. That's 1183 MJ per year per m^2.

1 acre is 4047 m^2, so per acre solar can capture 4.78 million MJ per acre-year. So a bit better than 2x as much energy captured as the biofuel process. ~8x if you take into account ICE motor vs. electric motor efficiency.

It will however cost you nearly $1 million to cover an acre with solar panels at current market prices. And biofuel lets you store energy chemically for months if not years at little cost. Batteries for storing electrical energy are practically limited to a few days storage at most (beyond that, weight and cost of battery capacity become an issue).

From a 2-car home's perspective, two cars driven 15k miles each at 25 mpg will consume 1200 gallons per year. At 15k gallons per acre, you can do that in 0.08 acres (324 m^2).

You should be able to collect enough solar energy for similar vehicle use with just 324*(2.03/4.78)*(25%/95%) = 36 m^2 of solar panels, which should cost you less than $10k.

From a best of both worlds perspective, it would seem solar would be the best home choice. Use it to top off your 30-mile electric range plug-in hybrid battery (or rather, to supplement commercial electrical use during the day, and taking it back at night to charge your battery). Ignoring of course the cost of hybrid batteries (i.e. assuming they get cheap enough we don't have to subsidize them). If the biofuel is financially viable, you could use it to fill up the gas tank of your hybrid, for use in the occasion long trip.

RE: ehh...
By cpeter38 on 3/4/2011 2:01:52 PM , Rating: 2
You have missed several factors in your analysis. True solar/electric vehicle cost in the sunny Southern US would be about $22,500 up front and $1,280 per year. New Yorkers would pay about $35,000 up front and $1,280 per year. See below for details.

If you make the assumptions that the family lives in the Nevada or Southern California area, your solar panel numbers are reasonably accurate for cost, efficiency and size for the energy content you specified. However, you missed several energy conversion processes, support equipment, and ongoing maintenance costs. In order to be able to accurately predict the cost and energy, you need to start at the wheels and work backwards.

Calculations and assumptions
1200 gal gas per year x* 121 MJ/gal x .25% efficiency = 36300 MJ per year (at the wheels)

Energy required can be approximated at 100 MJ/day (at the wheels)

Very optimistic assumptions are as follows:
Electric Motor: efficiency = 95%, cost included in the car
No auxiliary power used (forget about air conditioning, heating and radio - it makes the car a whole lot cheaper too)
Vehicle battery charger: efficiency = 95%, cost included in the car
Home inverter: efficiency = 95%, cost = $5,000
Home battery bank charger and controller: efficiency = 95%, cost included in inverter
Battery bank: Ignore self discharge losses, cost = $5,000 - see below
Wiring: Ignore resistance losses, pretend it is free
Mounting/positioning for solar panels, connectors, and maintenance costs: pretend there is no initial or operational costs
Solar panel: 36 m^2 /.95(motor) /.95(car battery) /.95 (inverter) /.95 (battery storage) = 44.2 m^2, cost = $12,500

If the family in question lives in Michigan, Washington state, New York, etc. they will need almost double the number of panels. See for daily solar energy map of the US.

Sizing Details
36300 MJ/yr /.95(motor) /.95(car battery) /.95 (inverter) /.95 (battery storage) x yr/365 days kWhr/3.6 MJ = 33.9 kWhr per day.

Typical sizing rules of thumb would require use of an inverter/battery charging system with a peak power rating of 5 kW. $5,000 would be a fantastic price for an inverter that could do this at 95% efficiency and last 20-25 years.

If you make the assumption that the cars can be charged over 12 hours per day, you will need to charge at about 2.8 kw per hour. This would require a minimum battery bank of at least 16 L16 6V 370 ah storage batteries. That is another $5,000 and the best warranty in the business is 2 yrs full replacement with an additional 5 yrs pro-rated. This is hard use and the average lifetime for this level of use is about 5 years. If you assume a 40% warranty return at EOL, the ongoing cost is about $600 per year.

How does this all come together? I think that a good way of estimating the costs and benefits would be to forecast them over a long period of time. I have made a number of highly optimistic assumptions above and I will add 3 more. Lets assume that the solar panel installation and the Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) last 25 years. Lets also assume that in 25 years the battery pack will need to be replaced twice at a cost of $10,000 per replacement.

What is the total cost for the energy and equipment in Nevada?

$12,500 (solar panels) + $5,000 (home inverter/charger) + $17,000 (initial + ongoing battery bank) + $20,000 (BEV battery pack) = $54,500. That comes out to $22,500 up front and $1,280 per year in ongoing costs!!!

If you live in upstate NY, add another $12,500 in up front solar panel cost to make up for the lack of sun.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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