On May 11, 2015, Joule Unlimited announced a new $40 million funding round geared toward increasing commercialization of its fuel conversion technologies. The funding round consists of a mix between private equity and venture debt financing, including return investor Flagship Ventures, and will be primarily allocated toward construction of the company’s production facility in Hobbs, New Mexico. After construction of this facility, Joule estimates that it will be able to convert 150,000 tons of CO2 waste into 25 million gallons of ethanol, or 15 million gallons of diesel, each year.
Based in Bedford, Massachusetts, Joule claims that it has discovered a method for converting solar power and carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol without using fresh water or agricultural land. This gives Joule’s ethanol an advantage over other biomass-derived fuels, including those made from algae, corn, and cellulose. According to company reports, Joule can produce over 20,000 gallons of its so-called “SolarFuel” per acre annually. The company has set a projected cost for its SolarFuel at $50 per barrel. With oil currently sitting at $60 per barrel, this could make SolarFuel extremely competitive.
The current fuel market is a volatile one, with Reuters reporting recently that biodiesel makers are cutting prices in order to remain competitive with the price of diesel fuel, which has dropped 20 percent from 2014. Currently, biodiesel is made from animal fat or vegetable oil. As a result, these producers are subject to fluctuating commodity prices, which can increase corn-based ethanol producers’ production costs significantly. Because Joule’s production methodology does not rely on agricultural inputs, the company’s product price point is not tied to fluctuations in the commodities market.
Joule’s system begins with a SolarConverter® array covering 1,000 acres. Each module of the SolarConverter® system contains a specific catalyst, non-potable water, and micronutrients. The water is pumped into the system from an industrial emitter or pipeline. The presence of CO2 keeps the catalysts in constant motion, maximizing their exposure to sunlight. This drives photosynthesis as the catalysts continue to consume the CO2 and produce fuel or chemical molecules into a liquid form. Essentially, Joule beleives it has found a way to replicate photosynthesis on an industrial scale.
According to Joule’s founder and chairman, Noubar Afeya, the company is “creating an entirely novel solution that combines the best of solar energy and biofuels, while eliminating their respective weaknesses.” The result of this, Afeya says, “is a system that can operate at a very large scale and provide efficient conversion and storage of solar power without relying on fossil or agricultural products as raw materials.”
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To date, Joule has looked for partnership opportunities with key players like Audi to help test drive the potential of its SolarFuel products. Prior to the announcement regarding new funding, Joule released the results of a third-party ethanol testing report. According to Reiner Mangold, Head of sustainable product development at Audi AG, said that “[t]he successful testing of ethanol produced from CO2 is another encouraging indication of this technology’s progress.”
Joule is not alone in the mission to transform CO2—the most common greenhouse gas—into a viable fuel source. Materials company Novomer creates high-grade biodegradable plastics, chemicals, and polymers from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, and Calera Corporation offers cement made from CO2.
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