Making Diesel at Solar Plants

Normally biofuels and solar power are considered to be competing alternative energy sources. However, some researchers are merging these technologies, trying to use the best of both to create “solar fuels.”  This includes the researchers at a small start-up company from Cambridge Massachusetts, Joule Unlimited, which was recently listed as one of the world’s ten most important emerging technologies by MIT’s Technology Review 2010 TR10. It was also selected as part of the TR50 in February, the only company besides Google that was chosen for both honors.

Joule Unlimited has manipulated and designed genes to create photosynthetic microorganisms. These microorganisms use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels (such as diesel). The photosynthetic microorganisms are designed with a genetic switch that limits growth. They are allowed to multiply for a couple days, then the genetic switch is flipped to divert their energy into fuel production. The microorganisms excrete the fuel, which is chemically separated and collected using conventional technologies.

The goal of this direct, continuous process is to achieve high fuel production with minimal land use. The microorganisms are grown in water inside transparent bioreactors, where they are circulated to make sure that all the microorganisms are exposed to sunlight. Different kinds of non-potable water can be used in this process, including brackish water, waste water or seawater. The microorganisms are fed concentrated carbon dioxide and other nutrients. The long term hope is to use carbon dioxide from polluting facilities such as coal plants.

Joule Unlimited claims to have specifically designed both their microorganisms and bioreactors to work in harmony together, in order to maximize fuel production. For instance, the company carefully designed the bioreactor to keep the heat within the limits required by their microorganism. In the long term, the company is hoping to produce 25,000 gallons per acre per year of ethanol and 15,000 gallons per acre per year of diesel at the competitive price of $30 per barrel. They are planning to scale up from demonstration facilities to building a commercial facility in 2012, in order to start producing diesel in 2013. However, their engineers still need to improve the performance of the microorganism to meet these targets, as well as address whatever issues arise during scale-up.

Joule Unlimited isn’t the only one working in this research area. Others working on solar fuels include:  (1) Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, CA, (2) BioCee in Minneapolis, MN, and (3) University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institute, St. Paul, MN. Hopefully the race is on, and the winner will be all of us.

Joule facility

A diagram of how a Joule facility would work with bioreactors growing micro organisms with sunlight and CO2 in water. A separator removes the end product -- liquid fuel or chemicals. (Courtesy of Joule Unlimited)

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