On the Path to Joule Unlimited

Every time I fill my gas tank, I think about Joule Unlimited and their technicolor pond scum.

This, by the way, is no ordinary scum. It’s super-mutant scum — cyanobacteria — designed to do nothing more in life than sit in some extremely high-tech reactors, sucking up sun and CO2, and spitting out straight diesel or ethanol (or petroleum-based chemical of your choice) — at continuous and absurdly high rates (15,000 and 25,000 gallons/acre/year) and insanely low prices ($20/barrel diesel and 60 cents/gallon ethanol).

I think about Joule partly because I fantasize about the days when gas used to be $2 and secretly hope they’ll magically return. I think about them, too, because it’s impossible not to: they’ve been in the news more or less monthly since May. 2011 has been a good year for them: they’ve won award after award, patent after patent (up to eight now with three more notices of allowance), found new lab space in Bedford, Mass., and now they’re on the eve of their big stroll through the biofuel version of the valley of death — the one, by the way, that ate so many of their compatriots.

I wrote this story on Joule and its co-founder David Berry, and even I’ve had my doubts about whether they could really do it. Their intended production rates push the limits of accepted reality, and the timeline they’ve promised has them selling commercially in 2012. As in, next year. Not a lofty bunch of goals at all, right?

When my story left off in May, they’d coaxed their bacteria into pumping out ethanol at slightly more than one-third of their promised rate. They’re well over the 50 percent mark now, and still fine-tuning. Figures for diesel weren’t then and still aren’t — unless I missed them — disclosed, which is more or less default for what I found to be a very unapologetically secretive company. (My guess is that diesel is probably around the 30 percent mark, to hit 50 percent over the next six months.)

More interestingly, they’re going to break ground on their first commercial plant within the next two weeks, in Lea County, New Mexico. They won’t be installing the stiff solar-panel style reactors that made them famous either, but instead, will use a newer generation of technology, gen 5. These units are larger, more efficient at promoting fuel, easier to maintain, and cheaper to build — crucial when you intend to build hundreds of thousands of them. More than that, I can’t say, mostly because Berry wouldn’t say (“We haven’t disclosed those details yet”).

They already showed themselves able to set up shop within a matter of months with their Texas pilot plant — part of the beauty of designing modular reactor units. If their reactors are even easier to build, I don’t see anything stopping them now from producing and selling — commercially — by mid-next year. Right on time.

They’re not at the promised land yet. Joule’s still got those wildly ambitious fuel production goals to meet, for one thing, and they still have a lot of costs to cut before they can drop prices to .60/gallon or $20 a barrel (for context, oil is currently selling over $80/barrel now).

But I’ll be damned. I’m starting to think they’re really going to do it.