Brain Storm

David Berry is the most brilliant thinker you’ve never heard of. Starting in 2012 he’s going to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels using little more than algae. (Okay, it’s technically cyanobacteria, but you know what we mean.) He might have done it sooner, but he’s also working on curing cancer and eradicating global hunger.

Photograph by David Yellen

Photograph by David Yellen

It looks like some combination of a solar panel, an aquarium, and a child’s Erector set. Which means it’s not exactly how you’d envision a piece of technology that is going to change the world. But that’s precisely what the people behind the small Kendall Square startup that produced this contraption keep telling me they’re going to do. So standing in a windowless lab located in that singularly unlovely corner of Cambridge called Life Science Square, I pull off my smudged safety goggles and lean in for a better look.

Beneath a furiously blazing sunlamp, a flat plastic tank is lying at a tilt, propped up by a system of metal rods. The tank is grooved with channels through which a thin green liquid is fizzing riotously upstream. This pale, watery fluid, more appletini in appearance than wheatgrass juice, is a one percent solution of cyanobacteria. (The stuff is not technically algae, but often gets called it. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms interchangeably throughout this story.) It’s pond scum, actually: photosynthetic bacteria from a phylum so diverse that specimens can be found in every corner of the world, from glaciers to dustbins. And even if we don’t know it, nearly all of us have ingested it at some point or other, whether in a splash of pond water during a swim or in a spirulina-laced smoothie.

So what is something this commonplace doing at the heart of a company with a spectacularly aggressive business plan? Joule Unlimited and its 33-year-old wunderkind founder, David Berry, see it as the solution to the global oil crisis. Berry and his team have figured out how to grow algae that are little diesel-making machines, designed to do nothing in life except ingest sunlight and CO2, drink water, and crap pure, clean fuel. And if Berry’s done his math right, these bacteria are the secret to a petroleum-free future. It’s only a matter of time, he says, until they eliminate the need for oil pulled from the ground. Joule Unlimited is not going to reduce our reliance on oil. It’s going to wipe it out.

And Joule, by the way, is just one of Berry’s planet-altering missions. Depending on the business card he happens to hand you on any given day, Berry is either a partner at a Cambridge venture capital firm or the founder of one of three revolutionary companies he’s created with the intention of quite literally changing the world. There’s his radical nutrition company, which is going to solve global hunger. Then there’s the business he started with the express purpose of curing cancer. And finally, there’s Joule.

So, yes, Berry likes to tackle more than one project at once. Of course, that’s quite a bit he’s taken on, even for someone of his prodigious talent and capacity for work. Then again, in a city overflowing with brilliant thinkers, David Berry — despite a profile so low many people around town have never heard of him — has one of the biggest and most important brains of all. Have others before him been unable to cure cancer? Are people still going hungry? Have we been disappointed by promise after broken promise of a beautiful biofuel future? Perhaps. But none of those failures had the benefit of David Berry’s mind.

“David’s immensely talented,” says Jim Collins, one of the early founders of synthetic biology. Ed DeLong, a pioneer in the field of metagenomics, says Berry thinks “very quickly and very deeply about a lot of different things, from logistics in infrastructure to the economic model to the engineering.” And according to Daniel Wang, who has been called the father of modern biotechnology, Berry “doesn’t like to get out there and say what I just told you — that Joule is the next best thing coming. He’s not that kind. But does he like to win? Ohhhh, yeah.”

And right now, as I watch the green liquid work its way through the tank’s channels, winning is defined in terms of Joule’s ability to get to market with a superalgae that can secrete just about any kind of fuel you want: diesel, ethanol, whatever.

It’s an almost laughably ambitious goal. When he’s not curing cancer and global hunger, Berry is going to solve a problem — our dependence on fossil fuels — that has vexed this country from an economic, strategic, and security standpoint for the past half-century. Doubt him? “When you’re doing something that everyone tells you can’t be done and won’t work,” Berry says, “well, that’s why we have pigs flying around our office.” And it’s true — they do. In fact, that happens to be the company’s unofficial mascot.

 

As I peer in at the 2-foot-by-4-foot tank in Joule’s lab, the specimens bubbling up before me actually bear little resemblance to their original selves. Joule has cut, pasted, stretched, and stuffed them into unnaturally sleek eating machines. They cannot survive long outside of this reactor, which sustains them and maximizes their performance. They cycle through the broth at a technologically controlled pace, snatching up photons and CO2 molecules and churning them into pure fuel at unprecedented rates. They keep next to nothing for themselves — storing no fat for hard times, and wasting nothing on growth. Joule has ripped out every nonessential function these cells once possessed, turning them into the photosynthetic equivalent of a racecar: nothing but engine. The really amazing thing is that this unit I’m looking at is pretty much the entire system. And there lies the true genius of Berry’s method: Whereas others in the industry are forced to first grow algae, then get it out of the water, then crush or squeeze it to remove the oil and finally convert that oil to usable fuel, Joule’s organisms simply whip the fuel right out of their bodies as soon as they produce it, with no conversions required. And the thinking goes that as long as Joule can perfect one unit, it can make a million more just like it. The plan is for entire fields, rolling acres of green as far as the eye can see. A true diesel farm.

In theory, I’m told, the entire system — from cyanobacteria to bioreactor — can produce more fuel more quickly than anything else in this amount of space. In theory, the numbers say, Joule could meet U.S. oil requirements, all 6.9 billion barrels per year of it, using no more land than is already devoted to growing corn in Nebraska and Iowa — and at roughly a third of the current cost of oil.

But like everyone else, I haven’t seen the math that proves any of this. Nor do I know exactly how the algae have been engineered, what micronutrients they require, how much money went into creating them, or what precise species of cyanobacteria Joule uses. Actually, until recently, nobody knew that they even were cyanobacteria. So tightly did Joule keep its process under wraps that at times it approached the point of absurdity: “The organism is an organism” was all a company official would say last spring of this miracle algae.

When I ask Berry about all the secrecy, he responds, “If you really believe you can change the world, frankly, you’re going to say almost nothing at all. And we’re building something we think has the potential to change the world.”

I want to believe him. Really, I do. Because we need an energy solution so badly right now. Every day, this country alone burns through 19.4 million barrels of oil; China goes through 8 million barrels a day and is closing the gap with us very, very fast. In a century and a half, we’ve managed to use up more than a trillion barrels of oil — about the same amount of proven reserves we have left. Now there are five times as many people on the planet as there were when we started using oil, and we’re splashing through what remains with our factories, ships, planes, and 900 million–plus passenger cars. What remains won’t last much longer. Which is why we’ve heard so much in the recent past about all those supposed biofuel breakthroughs. Like the cure for cancer, the solution is always right around the next corner. We’ve watched the rise and fall of corn and soy, then grass and wood chips, trash, coffee grounds, banana peels. For more than 50 years now we’ve been trying, and so far nobody’s come up with a genuine alternative to oil — not sunlight, not wind, not nuclear. Not yet, anyway.

 

Photograph by Robert Calentine/Visuals Unlimited

Photograph by Robert Calentine/Visuals Unlimited

Berry founded Joule in 2007 with Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of Flagship Ventures, the Cambridge venture capital company where Berry also works. That summer, they began reaching into Boston’s deep biotech pool for brains. They tapped George Church at Harvard and Daniel Wang from MIT, the respective fathers of genomics and biotechnology. Then came Jim Collins at BU, Ed DeLong at MIT, Chaitan Khosla at Stanford, and others, all leaders — giants, even — in their fields. Still, for its first two and a half years, Joule operated entirely in the shadows. There were no press releases, no website. Few outside the company even knew it existed. Finally, in July 2009, Joule decided to emerge from hiding, issuing a press release with the staggering announcement that it had developed a breakthrough technology that would transform sunlight and carbon dioxide straight into 20,000 or more gallons of ethanol or diesel per acre per year. The concept was cheap, easy to deploy, and would be ready to go commercial within two years.

Joule’s message was revolutionary, but its timing was awful. While Berry and his team had been puzzling over biological variables and solar reactors, an entire industry had sprung up around them almost overnight. Algae fuel was suddenly red hot. Everybody wanted in. Startups appeared by the dozen, working in feverish secrecy to develop their own answer to the world’s energy woes. By the time of Joule’s announcement, what’s been dubbed the “summer of algae” was already under way. Each day seemed to bring another grand declaration from somebody else promising the second coming of oil.

The whole thing felt like a kind of brave new world, but it wasn’t actually the country’s first attempt at these kinds of fuels. Reeling from the OPEC crisis in the mid-’70s, and attracted to algae’s high oil content and simple growing requirements — no need for clean water or arable land — the government led an effort to develop algal-based alternatives. That was the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), which ran from 1978 to 1996 and sent countless scientists out across the country in search of suitable strains of algae. The program got as far as a pilot plant in Roswell, New Mexico, but it never found a way to make algae work financially. Eventually oil prices dropped, and the program died from under-funding and lack of interest.

After the ASP, algae programs lay largely dormant for the better part of a decade, until rising oil prices, growing climate concerns, and advances in biotechnology sparked a renewed interest. Suddenly, algae was the word of the day. The bloom included businesses such as Sapphire Energy, Valcent, PetroSun, BioProcess, LiveFuels, OriginOil, Solix, Heliae, Aurora, Phycal, Algenol, and dozens of others. Algae grew in open ponds, closed ponds, fermentation vats, plastic bags suspended in the air, stacked reactors, and vast tanks illuminated with fiber optics. Some strains produced plant oil and biodiesel, some made ethanol, and a very small handful (including Joule’s) even made pure diesel. Money poured in, thanks to lab triumphs, pilot plants, and promises for tens of thousands — even millions — of gallons of fuel per acre. The government resurrected the ASP, and oil giants entered the fray. Even Craig Venter, the famed billionaire who makes a point to be first to every major biotech milestone, announced his intention to join the party. “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy,” he declared in 2008. A race was under way, and Berry’s company — which once figured it had the field to itself — was instead in the middle of a pack.
But then, just as suddenly, everything slowed down. In January 2010 a study in Environmental Science & Technology declared that algae fuel was nowhere near as eco-friendly as it appeared. A few months later, the Department of Energy published a research road map detailing a grim set of biofuel obstacles that still had to be overcome. Then UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute released the report “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production,” which predicted that the industry would need at least another decade to determine whether these fuels were viable.

Soon, even the most promising algae contenders were reevaluating their game plans. Solazyme, a company that grows its algae in the dark and feeds them sugar, began emphasizing the soaps, cosmetics, and energy drinks it could make in addition to fuel. Aurora Biofuels changed its name to Aurora Algae and similarly refocused on food.

It turns out that it’s difficult to squeeze oil out of algae on a mass scale. It’s also not easy to convert a system that makes a hundred thousand gallons of fuel into one that makes a billion gallons. And it’s next to impossible to coax these organisms to produce more than a few thousand gallons of oil per acre each year. Under absolutely perfect conditions, you might expect 13,000 or so gallons, and it’s probably more realistic to expect 2,000 to 3,000 gallons.

So when Joule popped up out of nowhere, promising to produce 20,000 gallons or more per year, the news was met with skepticism. “Joule Biotechnologies announces new biofuel jargon, scant details,” Scientific American jabbed. A Wall Street Journal blog took issue with Joule’s two-years-to-market claim: “That’s the same kind of ambitious timeline that has marked an awful lot of next-generation biofuel projects in recent years — projects that almost uniformly have failed to live up [to] their hype.” And NASA algae scientist Aaron Wolf Baum blogged that Joule’s promises “should be a red flag for investors.”