Joule raises $40M, as “fuel from thin air” preps for commercial scale in 2017.

joule-unlimitedIn Massachusetts, the remarkable journey of Joule Unlimited towards commercial-scale continued to add exciting chapters with the news that the company has closed on $40 million in private equity and venture debt financing, supporting the company’s growth towards commercialization. The round was led by existing investors, including Flagship Ventures, and brings the company’s total to $200 million raised to date.

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Other investors in the company have not been inclind to disclose their positions, but the Russian private equity firm Rusnano and the German carmarker Audi are known to be among them, and there are persistent rumors that GE has invested as well.  Joule itself will only refer to “a variety of different funds in the US and around the globe.”

The Joule backstory

They like to call it “reverse-combustion”. In combustion, as we know, energy is released when we burn an alcohol (such as ethanol) or an alkane (such as diesel fuel), and the fuel is converted into water vapor and CO2.

So, reverse it. Take water and CO2, and using a phtosynthetic organism as a catalyst (one capable of much higher productivity than a plant), combine CO2 and water vapor into an alcohol or an alkane.

And, unlike biofuels derived indirectly from agricultural or algal biomass in a multi-step process, Joule’s fuels are derived directly from sunlight and waste CO2 in a single conversion step.

Activities in 2015 through 2017: scale-up and scale-out

Start your “countdown to commercial-scale” clocks, Digesterati, we are in the last 31 months and no more until the build-out of a 1,000-acre plant is set to begin in 2017, where as Joule observes “in an optimal location, a plant of this size has the potential to convert 150,000 tonnes of waste CO2 into 25 million gallons of ethanol or 15 million gallons of diesel per year – with no reliance on arable land, crops or fresh water.”

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Between now and then, Joule’s Tom Jensen describes the overall activity as “de-risking the remaining aspects of the technology and scaling-up and scale-out of the process.”

Step one is the completion of a “much larger system” at Hobbs, as Jensen puts it, “that will be the main scale-up happening.” Timing? “We are hoping to commission by the end of this year and to demionstrate that the main industriual risk has been taken out.

In 2016, expect scale-out to begin, as the company demonstrate the scalability of its modular SolarConverter system, which enables the direct, continuous production of fuel from CO2 and sunlight. It’s a modular system, which is to say there is not the mechanical or fermentation scale-up risks associated with, say, a new production organism moving into million liter fermenters. 12 units should work together just as easily as 100.

Speaking of CO2, where will it come from?

“Up until now [at Hobbs],”  Jensen notes, “we have had separate CO2 tanks. We have been testing varuous sources of CO2, coal-fired power or cement for example, and all that is done. What remains is to integrate fluegas from a nearby source, which is not really technically a problem, it’s straightforward. Obviously, the the closer we are to a source, the better it is economically. It’s the same for water, and typically a Joule facility would be close to saline or brackish aquifers or coastlines.”

CO2 recycling

“Joule’s CO2-recycled fuel is on track to become a real answer for carbon neutrality. It provides a solution which is both practical and economical for global mobility and it can be implemented in the short term,” said Serge Tchuruk, President and CEO of Joule.

“The call for global decarbonization is increasingly making headlines, and Joule is at the forefront of a CO2 recycling movement that can both reduce industrial emissions and generate economic growth,” said Noubar Afeyan, Co-Founder and Chairman of Joule and Senior Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures. “The company has proven the industrial viability of its approach and, with the strong new leadership team in place, is rapidly advancing towards market introduction within the next few years.”

The bottom line

For now, think ethanol. The diesel molecules will come a little later — it’s a more difficult process to make a 10-15 carbon atom diesel moecule than a two-carbon atom molecule like ethanol.

For both production molecules, though, the CO2 emissions profile is likely to be so exotically strong that only electric vehicles may prove a rival in terms of carbon intensity — and electric vehicles powered by solar or wind energy, not electrics powered by coal.

We have more about the deployment story of Joule in a related article here. And there’s more about Joule from The Digest, here, or from Joule itself, via www.jouleunlimited.com.

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