Joule Cranks Up the Hype Machine

Joule Unlimited, incubated by MIT venture capitalist Noubar Afeyan, has begun banging the publicity drum for its bacterial energy platform.

As with algae biofuels, which have gotten interest from major oil companies, Joule has a controlled biological reaction which creates usable hydrocarbons as a byproduct. Unlike the others, Joule uses a cyanobacteria, which lacks a nucleus, mitochondria or chloroplasts.

Joule has engineered one of these beasties with a pathway for saturated synthesis and secretion of alkanes (saturated hydrocarbons), and a mechanism to control whether carbon is used for growth or alkane production. The result, in theory, is solar efficiency close to that of CIGS thin film (about 7%) although Joule’s scientific paper on its process sees a theoretical maximum of 12%.

All good in theory. The question is whether this can scale. Thus the publicity parade.

Afeyan’s firm, Flagship Ventures, got the ball rolling in January by recruiting Obama transition team head John Podesta to its board of directors.

Last month Joule and Flagship sent out press releases on the coming “peer reviewed article” in the journal Photosynthesis Research by senior vice president Dan Robertson, who had previously worked on cellulosic alcohol bacteria with Verenium Corp., one of those outfits that sold out to big oil (in this case BP).

It all goes into overdrive this week with a series of talks by CEO Bill Sims (best known for Color Kinetics, an LED lighting company now owned by Philips) at a Wall Street Journal environmental conference and a Houston energy conference headlined by former Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr..

The aim of the tour seems to be to get the Joule story in front of scouts for the big California venture capitalists and the big Houston energy companies, then make a deal.

It’s important to note at this point that, hype aside, there is not yet even a demonstration plant built for this process. If it can scale economically in the demonstration plant, then Joule may be ready to seek capital for a serious facility, assuming governments aren’t feeling so burned by past failures  in biomass that they can’t find the capital.

But if this is as good as Joule claims, no public money will be needed to prove it.

 

 

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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