Joule Biotechnologies announces…. nothing substantial?

Slashdot and other groups have been all abuzz with incredulity and scepticism over Joule Biotechnologies “announcement” about some new micro-organism that they’ve cultured to secrete biofuel. The problem is the “announcement” contained hardly any details. What is the organism?
As Scientific American’s 60 second science put it:

Basically, all you gotta do is you put your HeliocultureTM into your scalable SolarConverterTM and, voila, out comes your SolarFuelTM liquid energy!

Or at least that’s the gist of the cryptic, jargon-laced press release that Joule Biotechnologies issued this morning promising a “game-changing” alternative-energy solution that “requires no agricultural land or fresh water” to produce “more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually.”

“A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels” declared Technology Review, which—like most of the stories published today—was absent information allowing an independent assessment of its feasibility. Even more puzzling was the company’s statement that Flagship Ventures has invested “substantially less than $50 million.”

Joule, founded in 2007, claims to “leverage highly engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and CO2” inside a transparent bioreactor filled with brackish water. These mysterious organisms do not need to be harvested and processed but instead continuously secrete the fuels. It sounds a lot like the recent ExxonMobil-Synthetic Genomics algae biofuel initiative, except Joule President and CEO Bill Sims told the Boston Globe their organism is definitely not algae and no other company is using it. “If I tell you what the organism is, I’m inviting everyone else to take part in a transformational, evolutionary, game-changing technology,” he said.

A range of organisms beyond plants, including the protist Euglena and an odd sea slug, have the ability to photosynthesize, but few can grow as fast as algae or cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae).

One striking possibility is that Joule’s organism is an aquatic plant.

Todd Michael, a plant ecologist at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who has been studying the potential of freshwater duckweed to be used as a biofuel was surprised by the new announcement. His team speculates that Joule’s organism is the duckweed Wolffia, sometimes called watermeal. The genus includes the smallest flowering plants on Earth. “I think pursuing every single bioenergy option is a good strategy,” he says.

Joule’s ambitious plans are to start building a pilot plant in 2010 and a commercial-scale plant by early 2012.

As I said in the comments section:

Eclipse at 06:59 PM on 07/28/09

Jerryd, eco-steve just asked where the fertilizer comes from to grow the things in the first place! I for one think it is a good question.

Also, requiring ‘concentrated Co2’ means we’re looking at a system that could have us addicted to coal-fired power plants. The MOMENT some engineering type says “let’s just add a Co2 extractor to bring us all the Co2 we need from the air” we are talking about adding another substantial cost stream to the venture, taking it way above the ‘advertised’ $50 a barrel.

Sorry guys, sometimes there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I wish them well and hope they are onto something that can help with SOME of our fuel needs, maybe fed from sewerage treatment or helping in that process (and saving some of our phosphorus preparing us for peak-phosphorus) but sometimes there is no alternative to clever city design.

Fuel efficient cars are one thing: but why does the average European use less than half the oil of the average American? Answer: dense and diverse city planning, attractive “old-urbanism” and great public transport. Discover better city plans than bland old single purpose suburban sleepy suburbs, and you discover ‘nega-barrels’ instead of ‘mega-barrels’. It’s not rocket science. We built walking distance cities for 10,000 years prior to the car!

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