With low gasoline prices, ethanol doesn’t get talked about much these days. It was all the rage 15 months ago when it seemed like we would exhaust our oil stocks by the end of every week. Even then, the economics and never quite seemed to work.
But that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to come up with better ways to make ethanol. One is baking bio-organisms in solar panels to make them secrete ethanol. The company behind this scheme is Joule Biotechnologies, Inc. which invented a device called a SolarConverter to heat the organisms. It has dubbed the process “helioculture.”
Joule, named after the British scientist whose last name is a unit of energy, plans on producing ethanol that can compete with $50 a barrel oil. The advantage over conventional methods is that it uses no water or agriculture and enjoys a ready supply of heat from the sun and CO2 from the atmosphere.
The company has been so secretive about identifying its “photosynthetic organism” that it blindfolded a Boston Globe reporter before she entered its Cambridge, Mass headquarters (see video and her story). The blindfolding was something of a gag, but Joule after two years of operating in stealth mode is mum on the organism it is using although it is rumored to be aquatic.
I’ve covered traditional and novel ways to produce ethanol and other fuels - biomass such as corn, sugar cane or cellulosic materials or algae for jet fuel. Former colleague Joe Ogando wrote about a do-it-yourselfer home machine that promised to produce five gallons of ethanol a day using plants with sugar as byproduct or leftover cocktails and beer.
“In essence, it’s grain alcohol. Moonshine. Hooch.” former colleague Chuck Murray wrote about making ethanol last August. It’s like making bad beer. In other words, ethanol is typically distilled from biomass.
But the fuel is hardly making oil refiners nervous (actually, higher MPG vehicles are…but that’s another story). Ethanol and ways to make it have not been game-changers. The process is expensive, bad for the environment and morally questionnable given the primary ethanol corn feedstock robs the food supply.
It’s often been said ethanol take more energy to produce than it ends up delivering. And if betting on winners is your thing, consider that GM largely alone has pushed E85, which is 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline. Last year, it said half its vehicles would run on it by 2012, according to Murray’s story.
The big question with Joule’s technology is understanding what the green stuff in its beakers is (video below). The secretive company won’t say which prompted scientificamerican.com in the absence of independent verification to label Joule’s July 27 announcement a “cryptic, jargon-laced press release” which indeed it is. For the moment, skepticism reigns.
Joule claims the SolarConverter could produce 20,000 gallons of ethanol per acre which I presume to mean space occupied by SolarConverters (versus 328 gallons an acre for corn-based ethanol). CEO Bill Sims said in a TV interview that it is planning to build a pilot system next year with commercial production slated for 2012 should all go according to plan.
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