Monday, January 17, 2011

Joule Unlimited: A Potential Game Changer?

Artificial photosynthesis
That is what US Senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry calls the technology being developed by Joule Unlimited Inc., a company in his home state of Massachusetts.
The company claims it has developed a method of producing large amounts of cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuel using a "proprietary organism" and freely available inputs like the evil carbon dioxide and water.
Neil Reynolds describes the company in a Globe and Mail column this week. Time magazine recently touted the company as one of its Top 20 Green Tech Ideas of 2010.
Joule Unlimited claims that it uses artificial photosynthesis that it can scale-up to produce large amounts of "fungible diesel fuel" for around $30US per barrel equivalent. Their technique does not use expensive biomass inputs to produce biofuels, such as is done with corn to make ethanol.
Joule Unlimited expects to begin commercial production in 2012. In the meantime I would put off purchasing that hybrid or electric car, the future is impossible to predict.  


  1. I suspect your use of the word 'evil' was tongue-in-cheek but I am encouraged to see your post that suggests a Libertarian answer to Climate Change - create a fuel source that can compete economically with fossil fuels and people will switch without coercion. Nuclear fusion is also extremely promising for a future of clean energy for hundreds of thousands of years (long enough, hopefully, to find more sources of fusion fuel).

    My concern is that the damage we are doing with increasing C02 emissions is that the technology will take too long to implement. We need solutions to significantly reduce C02 emissions now, even if it means some 'coercive' regulations or carbon taxes.

    Although I haven't read Dan Gardners book, I have heard an interview with him at the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe ( Of course, long-range predictions are so unreliable that they are hardly worth making but, in the case of Climate Change, we know that temperatures cannot rise indefinitely. And, like the frog in the proverbial heated water, eventually the water will boil and the frog will die.

  2. Yes, of course 'evil' was tongue-in-cheek but targeted. The fuel produced by Joule Unlimited would still be virtually identical to the oil that is drilled, so no CO2 reductions there. This would simply be energy independence from imported oil. As for nuclear fusion, as it was fifty years ago, its still fifty years in the future. I'm not holding my breath on that.
    I think coercive regulations like carbon taxes are 'done-like-dinner'. In Ontario, Mr. McGuinty is in deep trouble re his Green Energy Act, and I will take bets it will be nullified or severely modified by the new government next fall. Economic conditions have already moved the environment to a fringe issue in many countries and that trend will accelerate as the monetary crisis worsens into 2012.

  3. BTW, though there will be no reductions of CO2, the result of this method of producing diesel fuel would be relatively carbon neutral, not that it matters.

  4. The idea of the technology from Joule Unlimited is not to reduce CO2 but to recycle it. Fossil fuels add CO2 whereas this technology farms C02 from the atmosphere and eventually returns it. In other words, we could balance the atmospheric C02.

    However, it may also be a way of sequestering the CO2 for storage which is a technology that British billionaire Richard Branson is offering a large monetary prize.

    I'm sure the Green Energy Act is full of problems but any energy plan that doesn't put sustainability front and centre is irresponsible with the knowledge we have now.

  5. While you may say its irresponsible because of your bias, I would counter that it is not required and unnecessary because of mine. The ultimate purpose of this company is for its owners and investors.
    The idea of an "energy plan" fits nicely with Marxist philosophy.

  6. Allen: I resemble that remark, sir! President Obama most certainly has a plan, and someday we will all know what it was.

    Pay no attention to the job-killing, industry-killing policy of energy starvation being implemented from the White House against coal, offshore oil, oil sands, shale gas, nuclear, and other forms of energy that are reliable and safe.

    Instead, look to solar and wind as our salvation, and quickest route to high energy costs and the great human dieoff.orgy to save the planet! That is what all of us greenies look to for a real goal. Now, we need a plan . . .

  7. Tyler Hamilton wrote a nice article about Joule, and some other players that are working with similar technology over on his Clean Break blog.

    It looks like there's some really exciting stuff coming along in this field.

  8. That is the plan, "the great human dieoff" will save the planet. It will cut down our "carbon-footprints", reduce the evil CO2, and bring the planet into that long-sought-after "greeny-balance" as we freeze in the dark.
    FYI, here in the heart of the Great White North tonight temps will drop to -19C (0F) with a wind so it feels like -30C (-25F).
    I hear its nice in the Caymans this time of year.

  9. Matt, Hamilton's article is very interesting and hopeful. I disagree with his assertion that CO2 is a "feedstock". Yes pressurized CO2 will need to be made available for the Joule production, but CO2 production will not affect the price of "food" for humans or animals as say ethanol production affects corn prices. Of course it will affect the price of fire extinguishers.


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