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

LAST SPRING, LESS THAN A YEAR after its public debut, Joule broke ground on a small pilot plant in Leander, Texas. There, 72 solar-panel tanks sit on the ground, each one about 4 feet by 8 feet, the whole thing laid out on just a fifth of an acre or so. It’s an outdoor laboratory that puts the controlled-environment results to the real-world test — that critical first step between the lab and the market.

The company has been running ethanol in the space for the past few months, and, according to Berry, so far, so good. (As usual, he won’t get into details.) The plant is now preparing to begin its diesel runs. Meanwhile, in the lab, Joule claims to already be pushing the supposed limits of ethanol production rates, hitting 10,000 gallons per acre earlier this year. Of course, they’ve yet to release the biological evidence to back that up.
Since 2009, the company has refined its original predictions of a generic 20,000 gallons per acre each year to a more specific 25,000 gallons of ethanol and 15,000 gallons of diesel. The plan is still to hit commercial scale by 2012, selling quantities of diesel to select clients like the blenders who create mixed fuels (such as gasoline) or to the transportation industry. From there, the possibilities are endless. “We’re going to be the 800-pound gorilla,” says Dan Robertson, Joule’s head of biological sciences. “The concept is that we’re going to be the fuel company that displaces the petroleum-derived fuel industry.”

Perhaps, but some outside Joule remain skeptical. “It’s an encouraging sign,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, says of Joule’s initial successes. “But the key now is to produce at a competitive cost.” Joule has entered the “valley of death,” he warns — that toughest of all passages from the pilot stage to commercial. “There are companies that make it through that,” Coleman says. “Joule could make it through. But they need to make it to the next level.”

It’s true that Joule has yet to power cars or planes or Navy vessels, as competitors such as Sapphire and Solazyme have done with their fuels. Though it’s easy to dismiss those achievements as flashy gimmicks, the fact remains that they’ve done it and Joule has not. Nor has the company announced any deals with oil giants, like the $300 million pact Craig Venter struck with ExxonMobil.

Then again, where it counts the most, Joule appears to have positioned itself to be front and center in the biofuel race. It remains the only company so far to have achieved the continuous secretion of pure diesel — that is, getting its organisms to constantly spit out engine-ready molecules, with no need to refine. A handful of other companies are working on similar strategies, but so far, publicly at least, no one else is there.

Berry says these breakthroughs are Joule’s greatest advantages, a major reason he and his partners can hit their high production goals. It allows them to avoid the most costly issues in the game: squeezing the oil from the organisms; dealing with the dried-up mass of leftover greenery; and converting the oils into a usable fuel. But he doesn’t seem overly concerned with what analysts or anyone else thinks. In his mind, he’s solved it. He has no doubts. He’s certain that he and his team have thought through every obstacle. They’ve studied and learned from the failures of their predecessors. He’s seen the figures that prove it, he tells me — hell, he’s crunched half of them himself.

“I’m fine with everyone saying this can’t be done,” he says. “The Wright brothers were told they couldn’t get something to fly. No one ever believes that things can happen until they happen.”