Issue: May 2011

Solar Fuel


by Bob Brooks

Drop-in economic motor fuel obtained by secretion with solar energy, CO2 and salt or brackish water but without processing bio materials such as corn, soy beans, algae, cellulosic or other bio materials, will be demonstrated at scale on a 1200 acre leased site in New Mexico. The developer, Joule Unlimited, prefers it’s product be called ”solar fuel” so as to distinguish it from common bio fuel. Joule is also seeking foreign locations to demonstrate it’s system surely in part reflecting the EU target for much greater use of alternative fuels.

Joule, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, is a leader in the development of genetically modified, product specific, photo synthetic organisms it claims has successfully completed pilot plant demonstration of secreted fuel. Diesel fuel output from the system requires no refining or chemical processing for use as engine fuel.

The Joule system employs flat panel photo bioreactors (Joule calls “solar converters”) tilted to a fixed position facing the sun. Proof of concept pilot operations of the remarkably simple one step system in Leander, Texas, demonstrated output yields of 15,000 gal/acre/yr diesel fuel and 25,000 gal/acre/yr ethanol.

Joule expects to deliver diesel fuel for as little as $20/bbl including current subsidy which is now at $1/gal. The apparent indicated commodity price, therefore could be $62/bbl without subsidy. Joule also expects to deliver ethanol for $0.60/gal including current subsidy. Subsidy support for ethanol, however, is expected to be cut sharply quite soon.

Joule’s demonstration at scale on 1200 leased acres with options for a total of 5000 acres is in Lea County, New Mexico. $19 million in incentives have been offered to Joule by the State which has ideal conditions for the system, including, vast land areas unsuited for agriculture, abundant brackish water and stack gas waste CO2. The Joule system could become a major source of environmentally superior motor fuel providing jobs and rescue from the cost and pollution of imported petroleum.

Since secretion is the core feature of the Joule system, more attention will surely be given to others who are developing secretion technology. Among these are Algenol now joined with Dow Chemical Company, currently constructing an algae based ethanol secretion production facility in Texas. Algenol has said the small amount of algae used for secretion of ethanol needs to be replaced only once a year and possibly less often.

The ExxonMobil/Synthetic Genomics team is reportedly developing the secretion system for both Diesel and Otto engine fuel.

Particularly important will be elimination of human food and animal feed from use as raw material for motor fuel. Also eliminated are the difficult logistics and seasonal problems associated with bulky cellulosic materials. Critical fresh water is not needed.

Push back against the onset of non-bio systems, however, is coming, for instance, from an advanced relatively complex photo bioreactor system with multiple flat reactor panels sandwiched in stacks that produce bio diesel from algae in an otherwise conventional way. This system, developed by Algae.Tec, is reported to have demonstrated yields in pilot operation, up to 32,000 gal/acre/yr attributed largely to its unique fiber optic system for distribution of solar energy to the multiple reactor panels.

An early Algae.Tec full scale 40 ft. reactor module (shipping container size) is scheduled for first operation by 2012 in Western Australia. The company says 250 modules will make an economic production complex. This system could be well suited to EU priority need for new bio fuel without use of field crop input..

In effect, the race is on between non-bio vs. advanced bio fuel seeking to replace petroleum with U.S. made, drop-in, sustainable, low CO2 fuel with important implications for U.S. jobs and national economic strength. Synthetic Genomics founder, J. Craig Venter, speaking about his affiliation with ExxonMobil’s $600 million alternative fuel research program has said, “This area of research will enable us to create new fuels to replace oil and coal”.

Send your comment:
Name: Email:
Phone: Town & Country:

Automotive Industries


Thank You