Brain Storm: How David Berry is Going to Solve the Energy Crisis with Pond Scum

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.