Biofuel startup Joule Unlimited has announced that it has engineered microbes that require only sunlight and CO2 to produce ethanol, diesel, or other hydrocarbons. The company formally announced that it has obtained a patent for a genetically modified version of cyanobacteria that converts carbon dioxide, dirty water and sunlight into a liquid hydrocarbon that is functionally equivalent to regular diesel.

According to the patent, the engineered cyanobacteria contains “a recombinant acyl ACP reductase (AAR) enzyme and a recombinant alkanal decarboxylative monooxygenase (ADM) enzyme.”   What this concoction of cyanobacteria and enzymes does is allow for hydrocarbon production in a single step, converting captured sunlight into ‘liquid energy’, that can be either ethanol or diesel.

Joule Biotechnologies, microbes renewable energy fuel, bacteria renewable energy fuel, bacteria CO2 sunlight fuel, microbes bacteria CO2 sunlight fuel, cyanobacteria

“This patent award represents a critical milestone for our IP strategy and validates the truly revolutionary nature of our process, which has the potential to yield infrastructure-compatible replacements for fossil fuels at meaningful scale and highly-competitive costs, even before subsidies,” said Bill Sims, President and CEO, Joule. “Our vision since inception has been to overcome the limitations of biomass-based technologies, from feedstock costs and logistics to inefficient, energy-intensive processing. The result is the world’s first platform for converting sunlight and waste CO2 directly into diesel, requiring no costly intermediates, no use of agricultural land or fresh water, and no downstream processing.”

Formerly known as Joule Biotechnologies, the company, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced late last year that it had developed technology which could produce the equivalent of 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year and 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre per year of drop-in hydrocarbon fuels, using only sunlight, CO2 and  water as inputs. The Solar Converter along with the new bacteria and a technology known as helioculture is the basis of this claim. Pilot production on diesel begins later this year.

While the project is still in its pilot testing phase, it’s already producing 10,000 gallons of ethanol a year, or 40 percent of its goal, on its pilot lines in Leander, Texas. It is expected that production will begin by the end of the year with commercial production commencing in 2012.  If it is successful, not only could it mean cheap biofuel (selling at $30 a barrel, compared to $70 for oil), but it could mean a fully sustainable form of fuel that doesn’t need food crops to create it. Fuel could literally be created out of thin air!

+ Joule Unlimited

Via Fast Company

Image from Joule Unlimited