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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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I like this
By dgingeri on 2/28/2011 1:19:05 PM , Rating: 5
I can't wait for the day when we can give a big, fat middle finger to Iran and Venezuela and tell them the world doesn't need their oil anymore. :)

RE: I like this
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:15:26 PM , Rating: 3
Or you educate yourself and realize that oil is bought on the open market and it doesn't matter where it comes from. Neither country give us an insanely significant portion of our oil.

And we could do that today by drilling here in the states to replace the amount of oil we end up getting from them. They just discovered a massive supply of oil in Colorado (I believe it was) which gives us the largest reserves in the world. But I seriously doubt we're going to start drilling it.

The problem isn't a lack of oil. The problem is a lack of will by our current government to let us drill and refine oil. Even if we drilled for it here, we have no new refining capacity planned which means we have to ship it elsewhere to be refined and then have it shipped back to us. That raises the price of fuel for us. We need not only more drilling but more refining capacity if we want to keep energy costs under control.

RE: I like this
By dgingeri on 2/28/2011 2:25:44 PM , Rating: 2
yeah, but those countries have been such a PITA, and I prefer to just think of giving them the finger, however it happens. :)

I heard about the reserves here in Colorado, and I heard that it was the Interior Secretary, from this state, that chose to block off drilling here, costing us several thousand jobs. Yeah, what a great guy.

RE: I like this
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:54:21 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not saying I don't want to bankrupt them. Just stating the facts.

And yeah, they're showing how much they care about improving the economy.

During the 2008 election Obama said to judge him not on what he says, but what he does. Just too bad the drones out there and mainstream media have yet to do so.

RE: I like this
By dgingeri on 2/28/2011 3:40:47 PM , Rating: 2
There's a reason I have a "Sorry Yet?" on the back of my car. :)

RE: I like this
By CowKing on 3/4/2011 8:20:42 PM , Rating: 2
Better than the alternative. *cough*Sarah Palin*cough*

RE: I like this
By edge929 on 2/28/2011 4:01:02 PM , Rating: 2
Re: Colorado "oil"
Unless some fantastic new method of extraction has been developed since the "discovery" of the oil shale, I doubt this will be the godsend we want it to be. More energy has to be used to extract the oil than can be obtained from the oil via combustion.

RE: I like this
By Manch on 3/1/2011 10:24:43 AM , Rating: 2
Actually there is, an that's why the oil shale under colorado and the finds in Texas and the midwest are such a big deal now. They're using a modified fracturing technique. Similar to the process they use in the North east to get at the gas lock in the ground. The amount of pemits requested to get at these deposits has sky rocketed since they proved it could be extracted at a reasonable cost. I'll find the link and post it.

RE: I like this
By FITCamaro on 3/1/2011 11:47:35 PM , Rating: 2
Canada has been selling us oil they've extracted from oil shale for the past several years.

RE: I like this
By Solandri on 2/28/2011 5:36:14 PM , Rating: 2
The problem isn't a lack of oil. The problem is a lack of will by our current government to let us drill and refine oil.

I agree our government is extremely reluctant to allow drilling for more oil, but there's more to it than that. Most of the "easy" oil in the U.S. has already been tapped. The remaining oil is harder and thus more costly to extract. As long as foreign oil producers are willing to sell their oil for less than it would cost to extract domestic oil, we will import it rather than tap the more expensive domestic supplies.*

There's also an inertia effect too. If oil prices spike, it takes a while for more costly domestic oil production to get underway. Usually this domestic production doesn't happen because recent oil price spikes have been relatively short-lived. If they were to stay at $100/bbl (I believe that's the price point) for an extended period of time, all the shale oil in the U.S. and Canada becomes viable to extract. It would be enough to make us the #1 oil producer in the world. (Though not the most efficient - most of the money spent here would go into extraction equipment, labor, and refining, with little profit. Most of the money spent on Middle Eastern oil is profit which they use to build golf courses and mega-luxury hotels.)

RE: I like this
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 11:20:38 PM , Rating: 2
Canada has been extracting oil from oil shale for a few years now. That's why they're one of our biggest suppliers.

RE: I like this
By ynot56 on 3/1/2011 1:32:41 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, Canada produces from tar sands, not oil shale.

Tar sands are FAR easier to produce than oil shale and Canada has a whole heck of a lot of tar sands.

RE: I like this
By ynot56 on 3/1/2011 1:44:36 PM , Rating: 2
There is no problem with refinery capacity in the US, this is a right wing canard.

It is absolutely true that no new refinery has been built in what, 30-40 years.

It is true that many have shut down.

It is not true that our refinery capacity (in terms or barrles per day) is decreasing, in fact it is 25% higher today than 25 years ago.

Plants have been upgraded and refit. Their nameplate capacity is far higher than when built (sometimes up to 10x).

The consolidation that has occured is a natural result of capitalism at work, not some government conspiracy to reduce refinery capacity in the US. If you can save money by consolidating refineries and improving production, it will happen.

RE: I like this
By US56 on 3/1/2011 1:48:39 AM , Rating: 1
We could be well on our way right now today by producing methanol as a substitute for gasoline. Methanol is superior to both gasoline and ethanol as a motor fuel. While the energy storage density is a little lower than ethanol, engines optimized for the use of methanol will more than compensate with a higher efficiency of conversion of the stored energy content of the fuel to mechanical work which has given methanol the advantage as a racing fuel and fuel additive for many years. Methanol can be produced from any source of cellulose using a well known industrial process which was patented more than 100 years ago. The source material can be green waste, trash, plastics which are not economical to recycle into new plastic material, forest product waste material, etc. Instead of making ethanol from the relatively small amount of sugar in corn kernels, the corn stalks, leaves, husks, and cobs left over from food processing can produce many times the energy content of the ethanol produced from the corn kernels of the very same plants. The conversion factor is approximately 60 mass units of methanol for 100 mass units of cellulose bearing waste material although water is required for the process so the mass of the finished product is not entirely from cellulose. The waste products are fly ash and heat. The heat is normally used for co-generation of electricity so the process is energy self-supporting other than for start up requirements. The fly ash can be used in the production of concrete or asphalt paving materials. The U.S. has huge sources of cellulose which are not currently exploited or are underutilized. If gasoline were replaced in a significant proportion by M85 or M100 (feasible in warmer climates or summer in most U.S. locations) then petroleum resources could be redirected to producing proportionately more diesel and kerosene based fuels such as turbine fuel. The world price of petroleum should be significantly impacted by reducing the very significant demand in the U.S. for gasoline. The use of methanol as a motor fuel would significantly improve the U.S. balance of payments and an entire new industry would be created greatly benefiting employment, investment, and the fiscal position of federal, state, and local governments. The use of methanol as a substitute for gasoline would be complementary to biofuel production as a substitute for diesel and kerosene based fuels. Like other alternate energy strategies there seems to be a inexplicable lack of awareness to the potential of methanol as a motor fuel. It has to be something more than just entrenched interests working against competition.

RE: I like this
By Kary on 3/1/2011 1:04:41 PM , Rating: 2
I think the argument I always heard against methanol was that it was poisonous....though...I'm thinking chugging gasoline is a bad way to go, too.

OH, and it combines readily with water to make it poisonous, too.

RE: I like this
By US56 on 3/2/2011 2:45:02 AM , Rating: 2
It's interesting that the main argument that the corn ethanol lobby has against methanol is that methanol is toxic. We're talking about a motor fuel, not a beverage. Methanol is used to denature ethyl alcohol. It is inevitable that some ignore the label or can't read and will take a swig of denatured alcohol. If methanol were all that dangerous it would not be used for that application. As for contamination of potable water, I believe you may be confusing methanol with MTBE. Even after gasoline retailers were forced to spend many millions of dollars in California replacing potentially leaky steel gasoline storage tanks with expensive fiberglass tanks enough MTBE leaked into the environment to render many potable water wells which were maintained for reserve or emergency water supplies unusable. Methanol is readily soluble in water and quickly oxidizes with exposure to air into CO2 + H2O. Decontamination is easily accomplished by aeration as for any volatile solvent in water. There is always some methanol vapor released to the atmosphere anyway since methanol is a natural metabolic product of certain bacteria. The fact that methanol is readily soluble gives it the same advantage for fire safety as ethanol. Methanol fires are easily controlled with water. In that respect, methanol is also a safer motor fuel than gasoline. That, and the performance advantages are the primary reasons "Indy" cars were switched to methanol in the nineteen sixties and continued on methanol until they switched to ethanol which had to be the result of some sort of marketing arrangement for corn ethanol fuel rather than for technical reasons.

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