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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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15000 gal/yr/acre?
By JeffCos on 2/28/2011 1:33:11 PM , Rating: 1
So you need an acre of land and all you get is 41 gallons a day? The most readily available data I found was from 2004 and we used 140billion gal of gas that year. It's definitely gone up since then. Which means we'd need just about 15.5k square miles of this stuff to fuel America for a year. Someone should check my math though.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:22:37 PM , Rating: 2
Shit most people could just grow it in their back yard to meet their fuel needs. Even with my GTO, my commute barely uses more than a gallon a day. So if I could "grow" 1 gallon of E85 every day, it'd be perfect.

Definitely gonna look at investing in these guys.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By Schrag4 on 2/28/2011 2:32:52 PM , Rating: 2
My math came out to 14.6k, not sure who's off but we're close. That's an area a little bigger than 1/6th the size of Kansas.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By dgingeri on 2/28/2011 2:52:54 PM , Rating: 2
Well, we could use desert areas like New Mexico and parts of California for much of it, and there would be very little ecological impact because of the lack of life in the desert. (Yes, I know there are a lot of things living in the desert, but for less than in forested areas or grasslands.) Congress would still find a way to block building these facilities, though.

The big problem would be the cost of building and maintaining the facilities. It would cost a lot more than $30 per barrel just because of the building costs where we would have to build them.

I like the idea of putting a small setup in a backyard, (I don't have a backyard since I live in an apartment now.) but my commute takes about 3 gallons of gas per day, and that doesn't include my various trips down to see my parents (a full tank of gas there) and to the store for grocery shopping.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:55:37 PM , Rating: 2
So essentially its 100% feasible.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By Motoman on 2/28/2011 3:04:26 PM , Rating: 2
Don't get me wrong...I am quite keen to learn more about this tech and hopefully see it prove successful...

...but I would have to ask how feasible it would be to build bio-reactors and whatnot that cover 1/6 the land area of KS from a financial perspective. We ain't exactly rollin' in it right now...

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 3:15:53 PM , Rating: 3
Well we sure seem to be "rolling in it" enough to give billions to solar and wind.

By mmcdonalataocdotgov on 3/1/2011 8:24:00 AM , Rating: 2
It's never what it costs. It's always what it makes.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By edge929 on 2/28/2011 2:53:00 PM , Rating: 3
From wikipedia, though no year is explicitly stated the paragraph implies 2010: "U.S. oil consumption is approximately 21,000,000 barrels per day"

Doing the math:
21,000,000 x 365 = 7,665,000,000 barrels per year
1 Oil barrel = 42 US gallons (34.9723 imp gal; 158.9873 L)
42 x 7,665,000,000 = 321,930,000,000 gallons per year
321,930,000,000 / 15,000 (from article) = 21,462,000 acres of land needed
640 acres = 1 square mile
21,462,000 / 640 = 33,534 square miles needed (a little smaller than the size of Indiana)

Just over double your 2004 result.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By FITCamaro on 2/28/2011 2:56:36 PM , Rating: 3
Even this number is completely feasible given the size of the US as a whole.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By dgingeri on 2/28/2011 3:37:55 PM , Rating: 2
You used oil consumption. only about 3/4 of our oil consumption is uesd for fuel, and on top of that, 3 barrels of oil produces about 1 barrel of gasoline or about 1.3 barrels of diesel fuel. So, on average, divide your results by 3 to get the actual results.

in other words, about 11,200 square miles.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By edge929 on 2/28/2011 4:15:21 PM , Rating: 2
If 3 barrels of oil makes 1 barrel of gas, then you would multiply my results by 3. I'll assume you meant the opposite based on your other comments.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By wiz220 on 2/28/2011 6:44:31 PM , Rating: 2
Actually I think he's right, you would divide by three IF you were only talking about gasoline usage, which is what the article was about. It looks like this product is specifically meant to be used as a gasoline/diesel substitute.

The reason is that if we use a certain number of barrels of oil per day then our gasoline usage would be directly related to it and we could only be using whatever gasoline we got from that oil, so roughly 1/3rd. Therefore the land necessary would be based on gasoline usage, not overall oil usage.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By SPOOFE on 2/28/2011 7:42:58 PM , Rating: 2
No, he's assuming the statements in the article are correct: That the process results in fuel right off the bat, no further processing needed. In other words, you don't need 3X the cyanobacteria product for one unit of actual fuel.

Conversely, the processing of oil nets a 3:1 oil/gasoline ratio, meaning you need 3X more "barrels of oil" to equate to the same volume of fuel claimed to be produced by the bacteria. Again, assuming the claims are accurate.

RE: 15000 gal/yr/acre?
By rvd2008 on 2/28/2011 3:47:22 PM , Rating: 2
guys in front of you are better at math.

it is gas/diesel we put in our cars, not oil
so start with gasoline consumption instead
(2011 estimated at 9.12 millions of barrels a day)

Vgas = 9.12 * 42 * 365 * 10^6 ~ 140 * 10^9 Gal/year
Area = 140 * 10^9 / (15 * 10^3) ~ 9 mil acres ~ 14000 sq miles

which is 70 miles by 200 miles rectangle

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