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Liquid Hydrocarbons on Demand?
January 18, 2011 8:15 AM   Subscribe

In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company received a patent for a genetically adapted E. coli bacterium that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons. Joule Unlimited, co-founded by George Church, appears ready to forever alter the way we produce fuel. posted by Baby_Balrog (140 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
The patent in question.
posted by jedicus at 8:18 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Converting CO2 to hydrocarbons is a endothermic reaction, so the bacteria cannot be feeding "solely" on it.
posted by DU at 8:21 AM on January 18, 2011 [15 favorites]


> ...forever alter the way we produce fuel.

<Rocket J. Squirrel>Again?</Rocket J. Squirrel>

I don't want to be cynical. I want to believe. I really hope that somebody will do something that makes us stop pulling oil out of the ground as desperately as we are.

But c'mon guys, then next innovative technology that will alter our fuel dependencies has been announced every two or three months for decades now, and nothing's really changed. I'm jaded and tired and want to see something happen for really real now. Before I die. Of old age.
posted by ardgedee at 8:21 AM on January 18, 2011 [16 favorites]


This seems a little too good to be true. Of course I say that without knowing any of the science, but it seems like a cold fusion/perpetual motion kind of dream.
posted by OmieWise at 8:22 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I understand it a major practical issue with this kind of thing (e.g. oil-producing algae) is efficiently removing the hydrocarbons so that the organisms don't choke on their own waste yet at the same time leaving the organisms behind and intact to keep producing. That may be easier to do with bacteria than algae, since they're simpler and presumably faster reproducing.
posted by jedicus at 8:22 AM on January 18, 2011


This is potentially great news, but yet I can't help thinking about the cool movie plots this could enable.
posted by cross_impact at 8:22 AM on January 18, 2011


Converting CO2 to hydrocarbons is a endothermic reaction, so the bacteria cannot be feeding "solely" on it.

Well, no, there's also 'suitable light conditions,' per the patent.
posted by jedicus at 8:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm secretly producing a bacterium that feeds solely on marketing hype and excretes puppies and rainbows.

(But seriously, it would be cool if this Joule thing is viable.)
posted by ghharr at 8:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [21 favorites]


I can totally appreciate the skepticism, but seeing George Church's name attached to this kinda gives me hope.
posted by boo_radley at 8:23 AM on January 18, 2011


Converting CO2 to hydrocarbons is a endothermic reaction, so the bacteria cannot be feeding "solely" on it.
Even a really casual perusal of their page should reveal words like sun, sunlight, and solar in important places, and their logo is a stylized sun.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


And indeed, it is not:
...it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”
We only need CO2! And sunshine, like solar power does.

(oh and water, like many other biofuels)

Not to badmouth them too much. I look forward to their 5-10% contribution to a heterogeneous future energy solution.
posted by DU at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2011 [11 favorites]


Oil is lighter than water.

I have read that bacteria like this are less robust than wild strains and keeping other microbes out of the reactor is an issue at large scales.
posted by dibblda at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm very curious - given that this bacteria appears capable of surviving in waters of varying levels of salinity - what are the risks associated with it being introduced to the water supply? Apocalyptic oceans of fire?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:26 AM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Converting CO2 to hydrocarbons is a endothermic reaction, so the bacteria cannot be feeding "solely" on it.

They also use the sun and water. They are "photobioreactors."

(CO2 + H2O) / Sunlight = CnHn.
posted by jabberjaw at 8:26 AM on January 18, 2011


Holy crap. This actually looks like it might be the real thing.

Any scientists in the house? Could this actually represent a solution to our energy source problems? How does this stack up? It uses waste carbon in production, so does that mean it's a net carbon sink?

$30 per gallon of diesel is pretty cheap, isn't it? They claim to be able to produce diesel at that price forever with this technology.

I mean, I've seen overblown claims of this kind before. But this has a different feel to it. Experts?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2011


Aren't there lots of patents for things that don't actually work? Wasn't the patent office pretty much gutted so that anything that's paid for gets through, whether it's reasonable or not?
posted by rikschell at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can they make jet fuel out of bullshit? Because that would be very useful.
posted by chavenet at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


>...it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”

Jesus. So they want to fuck up the environment by using up a ton of water, which produces oil that we'll burn and fuck up the environment even more?
posted by xbonesgt at 8:28 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt.

The only thing more scarce than oil these days seems to be water. So good luck with that.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:31 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems to me you're assuming the use of the water is a destructive process. If the water is reclaimable, then what's the problem?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:32 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


If only we had some really cheap way to make more oil to burn all our environmental problems would be solved.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


Ach, but on second thought, it probably isn't anyway, so never mind.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2011


So they want to fuck up the environment by using up a ton of water, which produces oil that we'll burn and fuck up the environment even more?

No. Burning the fuel releases water and carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Nothing gets 'used up'. That's the point of the whole thing.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2011 [12 favorites]


If it produces diesel fuel, it's clean burning, right? No significant carbon output from the engine?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:35 AM on January 18, 2011


Like most of the posters above, I don't understand the science beyond the press-release level. But I have to wonder, what if this miracle bacterium is real and escapes into the wild? Could we start to see non-point-source oil spills?
posted by richyoung at 8:35 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't imagine anything worse than, say, creation of The Pacific Tar Pit, which would be another fun tourist attraction for people visiting California.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


what are the risks associated with it being introduced to the water supply?

Probably minimal. They'd likely get outcompeted by wild bacteria very quickly and lose the artificial genes in order to adapt.
posted by jedicus at 8:38 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


If it produces diesel fuel, it's clean burning, right? No significant carbon output from the engine?

You mean no significant particulates? Because there's going to be plenty of carbon, but it should be basically carbon neutral as the released carbon is captured by the bacteria again, more or less.
posted by jedicus at 8:39 AM on January 18, 2011


The only thing more scarce than oil these days seems to be water. So good luck with that.

It says it can use saltwater. We've got plenty of that.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 8:39 AM on January 18, 2011 [17 favorites]




You mean no significant particulates?

Yeah, exactly.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:41 AM on January 18, 2011


I, for one, welcome our oil-producing bacterial overlords.
posted by wayofthedodo at 8:41 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The only thing more scarce than oil these days seems to be water.

There's plenty of salt water.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:42 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have good news, and bad news.

The bad news? Martians have invaded Earth.
The good news? They eat terrorists and pee gasoline.
posted by Xoebe at 8:42 AM on January 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


The only thing more scarce than oil these days seems to be water.

fresh water maybe, but salt water?
posted by pyramid termite at 8:43 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aren't there lots of patents for things that don't actually work?

In theory, no, as utility is a requirement for patentability, so if it's non-functional it's not valid. The patent office does not usually demand proof of utility except for obvious things like alleged perpetual motion machines. That said, the proof is in the pudding, and if the company can't show working prototypes then they aren't going to get significant investors. And if it doesn't work they won't make any money. And of course having a patent on something useless doesn't really hurt anybody else since why would anyone infringe a useless patent? So it's really a non-issue.

Wasn't the patent office pretty much gutted so that anything that's paid for gets through, whether it's reasonable or not?

The US Patent Office is entirely paid for by applicant fees and patent maintenance fees. It can't really be gutted except by a sudden decrease in the number of applications (and by a lot of issued patents going abandoned, which means fewer maintenance fees paid). There was recently a slight budget crunch because the recession resulted in such a decrease, but Congress allocated some money to make up the shortfall. This was actually a good thing because Congress has skimmed nearly a billion dollars off of the Patent Office budget over the years from years when the Office has taken in more than it spent.
posted by jedicus at 8:44 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


They'd likely get outcompeted by wild bacteria very quickly and lose the artificial genes in order to adapt.

Or, trade the genes off with the e. coli in our guts, and we all start pooping oil.
posted by bigbigdog at 8:46 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


We only need CO2! And sunshine, like solar power does.

Right, but this would solve the storage problem. Hydrocarbons are a lot more energy-dense than batteries, cheaper to store and maintain than both batteries and (I believe) hydrogen, and there's already an infrastructure in place to handle hydrocarbons.

Besides, isn't everything, like, solar power, man, like, in the end? I mean, have you ever really looked at the sun, man?
posted by backseatpilot at 8:46 AM on January 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Two wild amoebas looking at this bacteria...

"Hmm - what's that?"

"Dunno. It's green, and kind of oily looking... let me try it."

*Chomp*

"Well, what is it?"

"Salad. Tasty, too - but the dressing needs a bit of vinegar and some garlic."
posted by JB71 at 8:48 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's no shortage of water in most places, just potable water. If they can use contaminated or salty water, which is one of their claims, then it ought to be fine. There's a lot of salty water in the world.

It's industrial processes that require clean, drinkable water (e.g. many IC production operations) and thus compete with people for that limited resource that are the problem.

But if you can do your industrial process with seawater, and you're not horribly contaminating it in the process, you can pretty much go nuts.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:48 AM on January 18, 2011


Or, trade the genes off with the e. coli in our guts, and we all start pooping oil.

"honey, are you almost done in there? - we're running late and i've got to gas up the car"
posted by pyramid termite at 8:48 AM on January 18, 2011


The good news? They eat terrorists and pee gasoline.

...AND I'M ALL OUT OF TERRORISTS.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:49 AM on January 18, 2011 [18 favorites]


.Because there's going to be plenty of carbon, but it should be basically carbon neutral as the released carbon is captured by the bacteria again, more or less.

It must be carbon neutral unless there are carbon inputs besides CO2 from the air.

Once it's up and running any of the energy needs of the process could be fed by the output.
posted by empath at 8:50 AM on January 18, 2011


Can they make jet fuel out of bullshit?

"The lights, the motors, the vehicles, all run by a high-powered gas called methane. And methane cometh from pig shit."
posted by quin at 8:51 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bacteria blue.
posted by spitbull at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2011


But I have to wonder, what if this miracle bacterium is real and escapes into the wild?

I can't imagine that using enough energy to excrete diesel as waste is efficient enough for them to out-compete native organisms.
posted by empath at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2011


(CO2 + H2O) / Sunlight = CnHn.

Well, that seems to produce a lot of oxygen, too -- regular photosynthesis takes water and carbon dioxide and creates CxHxOx (sugars) with a little water and free oxygen as 'waste'. It sounds like these guys made/discovered/altered regular photosynthesis to avoid adding oxygen to the mix and excrete just CxHx. Where does the excess oxygen go? Well, either which way, it's not a horrible byproduct of the system. I like oxygen, for the most part.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2011


In the sense that it is a miracle energy source which will solve our woes, this won't happen. It may have utility in that it will enable civilization, for better or for worse, to stay on the Oil Teat for a little while longer.

If it weren't for the pesky carbon dioxide problem and all of the waste heat, liquid hydrocarbons are a not-bad way to store energy. Energy density is through the roof as compared to anything that isn't radioactive. Beats flywheels. Pourable, versus the slow battery charge times (for all of that "oh carbon nanotubes are going to make charging really fast now" stuff I'm still waiting for it to hit the market).

I think, though, that if this did pan out, we'd just use that extra time to go on ignoring the situation rather than saying, "Wow, we have a little breathing space instead of blindly panicking. Let's work on ultracapacitors and nuclear isomer energy storage while we make new, safer nuclear designs and start humping out solar panels like they're vinyl siding."
posted by adipocere at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It uses waste carbon in production, so does that mean it's a net carbon sink?

Well, if you took the hydrocarbons produced and locked them away in barrels forever and ever, it would be a carbon sink. But since the point of producing hydrocarbons would presumably be to burn them at some point, producing CO2, it's not. Still, if it works as claimed (and that's a very big if), it would be pretty close to carbon-neutral.

Aren't there lots of patents for things that don't actually work?

Yes, the patent office does not determine whether an invention actually works as claimed.

Wasn't the patent office pretty much gutted so that anything that's paid for gets through, whether it's reasonable or not?

I think you're conflating separate issues here. The US patent office has not tried to determine whether an invention works as claimed in a very long time (if it ever did — I'm not even sure of that). It is supposed to determine whether an invention is new and non-obvious. They've been criticized for not even doing a very good job of that, especially in recent years, but it's still far from the case that every patent applied for gets granted. Even so, whether an invention is new and non-obvious (what the USPTO is at least supposed to be checking for) is a separate issue from whether the invention works (not really USPTO's job).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2011


what are the risks associated with it being introduced to the water supply?

Probably minimal.


Famous last words. I see the disaster epic already, the oceans turning to burning seas of fuel.
posted by spitbull at 8:55 AM on January 18, 2011


If it weren't for the pesky carbon dioxide problem and all of the waste heat, liquid hydrocarbons are a not-bad way to store energy.

There is no CO2 problem with this.
posted by empath at 8:58 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can they make jet fuel out of bullshit? Because that would be very useful.

This is pretty straightforward. Converting cattle slurry to methane via anaerobic digestion is pretty well established as a working technology, and once you have methane then the process for converting to synthetic fuels is known science, albeit that it is too expensive to use currently.
posted by biffa at 8:58 AM on January 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Wasn't the patent office pretty much gutted so that anything that's paid for gets through, whether it's reasonable or not?

On the contrary, patent examiners (the people at the patent office who decide whether to allow applications as patents) give out a lot of bogus rejections of applications instead of allowing stuff that is borderline patentable. Apparently, they can get in trouble for a bad allowance but not for a bad rejection. I have been filing a lot of appeals of these bad rejections.
posted by exogenous at 8:58 AM on January 18, 2011


Famous last words. I see the disaster epic already, the oceans turning to burning seas of fuel.

Easy enough to check. Put a large sample of the bacteria in a tank full of ordinary sea water. Check on it in a few months or years and see if any of the oil-producing bacteria are left. My guess is that they either die off completely or mutate-away the oil-producing genes.
posted by jedicus at 9:00 AM on January 18, 2011


From the patent Jedicus linked: they've hacked a cyanobacterium (aka blue-green, photosynthetic, algae) and replaced a synthase with something that I guess eventually produces hydrocarbons.

This particular bacterium has both marine and freshwater strains, so presumably their tweak can apply to either.
posted by hattifattener at 9:01 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The US patent office has not tried to determine whether an invention works as claimed in a very long time (if it ever did — I'm not even sure of that)

It used to require the submission of working prototypes for inventions that were amenable to such prototypes (mechanical ones, mostly, as you'd imagine).

Yes, the patent office does not determine whether an invention actually works as claimed.

To be strictly accurate: it will ask for a prototype or other proof of effectiveness in the case of really outlandish claims: perpetual motion machines, generalized 'cures for cancer' (i.e. all cancers), that kind of stuff. But most stuff gets a pass on utility as long as it has some alleged usefulness and passes the sniff test for functionality.
posted by jedicus at 9:03 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ok, so biofuel from photosynthesising micro-organisms isn't really news. Using waste carbon dioxide from existing power plants isn't either. It has been shown many times that this works... sort of. The really critical numbers here are all to do with yield and scalability.
posted by atrazine at 9:05 AM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nothing ever gets 'used up'.

On a technical level, no. On a practical level, yes.
posted by eriko at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's no such thing as ordinary sea water, though. You'd need samples from around the world, especially from locales where there are heavy outflows of various mutagens from human industry. And you'd want to keep a nice UV light on it.

And then you'd have to be willing to gamble that your few years and handful of tanks would be as good at recreating evolution as all of the oceans and, say, ten thousand years might be. And that lateral gene transfer might not shuffle this trait around elsewhere. As a trait, it might not be wholly a burden, given the utility of biofilms. "Hey, check this out guys, I can make an oil slick!" might be something handy for some bacteria.
posted by adipocere at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2011


perhaps we can finally burn off the Cuyahoga River for good.

But seriously, it is an interesting announcement. Going to take a fair bit of further explanation and scrutinizing before I'd get my panties in a bundle over it. They will have to pretty rigorously show that it is safe, and poses no harm if accidentally released, in a wide variety of settings. Not just saying.. oh well it will be out-competed, blah blah blah. History is chock full of idiots who thought like that and introduced, on purpose or accidentally, different organisms to non native ecosystems with disastrous effects. So, yeah, I fully understand that at this stage it seems unlikely to be able to survive in the wild. But I want a good sight better than "unlikely". No fucking possible Ice-9 scenarios eh?
posted by edgeways at 9:09 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's no such thing as ordinary sea water, though. You'd need samples from around the world, especially from locales where there are heavy outflows of various mutagens from human industry. And you'd want to keep a nice UV light on it.

Okay, so we put together a few hundred bioreactors with samples of sea water from all over the world, some with extra UV lights, some without.

And then you'd have to be willing to gamble that your few years and handful of tanks would be as good at recreating evolution as all of the oceans and, say, ten thousand years might be.

I don't think we should be terribly worried about problems ten thousand years down the road given the impending doom of peak oil. But anyway, I think we can be at least as sure about the safety of this bacterium as we are about a lot of other dangerous stuff we do. It doesn't have to be perfectly safe forever, just worth whatever risk there might be.

"Hey, check this out guys, I can make an oil slick!" might be something handy for some bacteria.

It would not surprise me if there were already bacteria capable of producing oil. My guess is that they don't produce a lot of it, though, and the extra energy needed to produce more is heavily selected against.
posted by jedicus at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2011


$30 per gallon of diesel is pretty cheap, isn't it? They claim to be able to produce diesel at that price forever with this technology.

....as long as the sun keeps shining.
We're humans, I'm sure we'll find some way to fuck it up. Nuclear winter, perhaps?
posted by Theta States at 9:19 AM on January 18, 2011


Isn't it possible to design some set of genetic switches into these bacteria, so that they can't survive long enough to reproduce in the absence of some particular set of artificial living conditions? An approach like that could minimize the risk of contamination to the point it becomes insignificant. If the bacteria depends absolutely on certain artificially-created conditions (conditions not occurring in nature) being met to thrive, then there's no problem.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2011


Natural oil slicks are the biggest drawback you guys can come up with? C'mon, pessimists!

How about: (1) Church combines this project with his chirality experiments and produces disease-proof mirror-image cyanobacteria, which (2) escape into the ocean and multiply without competition, (3) ultimately killing, through suffocation, starvation or climate change, all natural life?

Probably still worth the risk, though. True, this isn't nuclear isomer energy storage or even a practicable thorium reactor, but it's a break; good lord, do we need one.
posted by Iridic at 9:31 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My superficial reading of the patent says the bugs convert CO2 to ethanol. Am I correct? Is ethanol considered a hydrocarbon?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2011


$30 per gallon of diesel is pretty cheap, isn't it?

Is that a typo? Thirty dollars per gallon is not cheap at all.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


More bio-fuel bullshit

They claim 20,000 gallons per acre (I assume per year). That's 4.9 gallons per square meter per year.

They use photobioreactors whose typical costs are $150 per square meter.

So their capital costs are $30 per gallon, or $6 per gallon if depreciated over 5 years.

That's before any operating costs (like recovering the oil, paying employees and power bills) let alone making any profit.

I'm not a biochemist, so I don't know if their 20,000 gallons claim is bogus, but I suspect it is wildly optimistic.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2011


Thirty dollars per barrel. Yes, it was a typo.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2011


Iridic, I was trying not to be gloomy! I get dunned enough for that.
posted by adipocere at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2011


Thirty dollars per gallon is not cheap at all.

Not yet.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


From Joule Unlimited's site, the second link:
Requiring only sunlight and waste CO2, this system can produce renewable diesel fuel in virtually unlimited quantities at costs as low as $30/barrel equivalent, overcoming the challenges of oil exploration and production.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:35 AM on January 18, 2011


A hair over 70¢ a gallon, then. But that "as low as" sounds a bit weaselly.
posted by Iridic at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can they make jet fuel out of bullshit? Because that would be very useful.

This is pretty straightforward. Converting cattle slurry to methane via anaerobic digestion is pretty well established as a working technology, and once you have methane then the process for converting to synthetic fuels is known science, albeit that it is too expensive to use currently.


I'm getting the feeling that this could be some sort of revenue stream for mefi once they get all the scalability kinks worked out.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hmmm... Genetically engineered E. coli that people want to produce at a massive enough scale to satiate a portion of the world's oil demands... What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:45 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Famous last words. I see the disaster epic already, the oceans turning to burning seas of fuel.

Firespill
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:45 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


$30 per gallon of diesel is pretty cheap, isn't it?

currently selling for $3.25 per gallon here. which planet were you on?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:48 AM on January 18, 2011


Quonsar II: you'll see that the typo has been corrected twice already, here and here.

One last time: It's $30 per barrel not per gallon (so that's about $0.70 per gallon).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Even at 10 times the price it might still be worth it. We could extract ourselves from the middle east, and all the oil dictatorships would fall.
posted by empath at 9:55 AM on January 18, 2011


If the bacteria depends absolutely on certain artificially-created conditions (conditions not occurring in nature) being met to thrive, then there's no problem.

Yeah, make them lysine-dependent or something.
posted by stevis23 at 10:03 AM on January 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Whatever the price, if it can scale, it would be the type of sequestration technology that we badly need, in order to quickly replace the trees we're cutting down and the plankton we're killing off with warming oceans.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:03 AM on January 18, 2011


And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt.

The only thing more scarce than oil these days seems to be water. So good luck with that.


If they can use salt water they can take the water from the ocean. I've been led to believe that there is a drop or two extra there. Besides, isn't water one of the by-products of the combustion process?

If it produces diesel fuel, it's clean burning, right? No significant carbon output from the engine?

One would think that, as long as you can capture the carbon somehow (maybe it just pulls it from the atmosphere?), the production cycle could get close to being carbon neutral. You would burn the fuel, produce carbon dioxide and water, then use those to make more fuel. It couldn't make as much fuel as you started with but it would recycle what it could.

It isn't really perpetual motion though it really seems like it. You're basically turning energy from the sun into petroleum based fuel. If it works and it scales up well enough, it really would be game changing.

It seems like it should work in theory at least. The energy to make it all work comes from the sun and it is based on existing biological processes. Any biochemists out there that can tell us if this could work?
posted by VTX at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised nobody has noticed that the patent mentions PLASMIDS!

BIOSHOCK IS REAL!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:15 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will believe it when I see it. People have been trying to use bacteria, algae and even some higher plants to produce hydrogen, fatty acids, and hydrocarbons from sunlight and carbon dioxide for almost two decades. All of these systems tend to be very, very finicky. The systems used to produce the fuel, Joule's is pretty typical, have proven to be very, very susceptible to poisoning. These organisms produce waste products and decay products in addition to the hydrocarbons. After a while these systems are full of dead organisms and wastes, in a wet, aerated environment. The wastes themselves may poison the organisms; nothing likes living in it's own foulness. In addition, these are perfect conditions for invasive microbial growth. It's impossible to make a completely sealed system as air has to come in, which means that spores and encysted microbes can too.

These problems are will be very familiar to anyone who has ever run an aquarium.

This is the hard problem that no one has been able to crack so far: growing the organisms from more than a few cycles, at fuel high productivity. There are many organisms that would be very productive fuel generators: common duckweed, for example, can be as much as 50% vegetable oil, which directly converts to biodiesel and can be reformulated to gasoline. The problem is growing it sustainably.

If Joule has cracked this problem, that's a major advance. If they've bred a strain which can spit out hydrocarbons instead of fatty acids or triglycerides, say, then that's much less interesting. There are half-a-dozen or more startups busily burning through VC money with similar IP. Running a stable production system is the really hard problem. The particular organism, and even the particular fuel it produces, whether fatty acids, alcohols or alkane hydrocarbons, isn't really that important. In quantity, any of these could be converted or used as a liquid fuel.
posted by bonehead at 10:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [13 favorites]


Here's an ugly fact: hydrocarbons are bascially the most efficient, simple, and safe means of storing energy. They're what life itself uses for energy storage. We're never going to top them on a practical scale—not within the next twenty years, and maybe not at all. Hydrogen ain't gonna do it, and batteries won't either. Not by a long shot.

This is honestly one of the best bets we have for sustainable energy production, folks. Not necessarily this particular venture, but the general idea: biofuel production from microorganisms. Ignore the projected numbers, which are no doubt overly-optimistic. New technologies always take more money, time, and effort than expected. But the principles are more than sound. It's one of the few energy technologies that has a fighting chance of being a primary replacement for fossil fuels.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


I hope this one is the real thing if only so that we can finally tell the Peak Oil freakazoids to shut the heck up already.
posted by Justinian at 10:32 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Justinian: Something like this is exactly what peak oil theory predicts should happen. Rock oil gets expensive enough, and something should arise to replace it. "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones" and all. But if you mean, by freakazoids, the people who are certain that nothing can or will replace (geological) oil, then yes, I agree.
posted by rusty at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2011


If it produces diesel fuel, it's clean burning, right?

Dodecane is dodecane is C12H26, no matter if it comes out a bacteria's bum or from distilled dinosaur. Aside from sulphur inputs, the pollution from diesel combustion is more a function of the engine or power plant it burns in than the fuel itself. Particulates (PM10, PM2.5) will still be produced. Nitrogen oxides (NOX) will still be produced. Those happend because of the combustion thermodynamics of the engine. Trucks will still need urea reactors or some other activated filter to deal with NOX. Diesel fuel will still burn the same way, and still produce the same combustion products.
posted by bonehead at 10:44 AM on January 18, 2011


Ugly fact: hydrocarbons are bascially the most efficient, simple, and safe means of storing energy.

Oh, bullshit. Nobody, and I mean nobody, uses hydrocarbons to store energy, because hydrocarbon conversion efficiencies are crap. Sure, we're happy to burn it at 25% efficiency when there's an endless supply spewing out of the ground. It's a very convenient energy source. But no one actually converts energy into hydrocarbons for storage. End-to-end efficiency would be in the single digits. Good lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, are over 90% efficient.
posted by ryanrs at 10:51 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the Joule FAQ: We estimate our costs for diesel to be as low as $30 per barrel equivalent.

Some weasel words there, but oil today is running between $80 to $90 USD per barrel, so that's roughly a third of present prices.

I say weasel words bcause a barrel of oil isn't a barrel of diesel. Depending on the source oil and the refining technology used, the yeild on crude for diesel is typically about 30% to 50% of the barrel. That is a third to one half of a barrel can be made into light fuels, gasoline, kerosene and diesel. This number goes up with better refining and processing technology and down with the poorer, heavier sources of oil now being extracted.

Given that, their actual per barrel cost is probably in the $60 to $90 USD range, but that's "per barrel equivalent" to two barrels of oil.
posted by bonehead at 10:53 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yow. I hope this works out well, at least as a step on an avenue of further productive research.

Also, there's something familiar about the idea of a Boston-area company and genetically modified organisms generating unusual industrial products.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:02 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


whups. first link was supposed to be the wikipedia page for the book.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:03 AM on January 18, 2011


Here's some video of sugar-eating bacteria that produce diesel, in part three of the rather good BBC4 documentary 'The Cell'. There's an interview with George Church a bit later in the episode.
posted by LVdB at 11:12 AM on January 18, 2011


Nobody, and I mean nobody, uses hydrocarbons to store energy

What about the Strategic Oil Reserve? How about the gasoline in your car? Oil heat in your house? Everybody - I mean everybody - uses hydrocarbons to store energy.

You may be able to get 90% of the energy out of a Li-ion battery that you put into it, but there are hidden costs associated with manufacturing and maintaining them. Batteries do not last indefinitely, they're relatively expensive to produce, and you'd need a small warehouse of them to equal the energy you can store chemically elsewhere.

I agree that using, say, a solar panel to produce hydrocarbons would be pretty inefficient. Instead of thinking along those lines, the better analogy to me would be comparing it to alcohol-producing yeast (another hydrocarbon, by the way).
posted by backseatpilot at 11:14 AM on January 18, 2011


Oh, bullshit. Nobody, and I mean nobody, uses hydrocarbons to store energy

Everybody uses hydrocarbons to store energy. You're more than likely doing it right now. I know my own body has a particular penchant for doing so. The problem is that we don't have technologies capable of reproducing this feat. That's what ventures like this one are trying to change.

In terms of energy conversion, you're right. Batteries are a much more efficient means of storing energy, at least compared to burning fuel rather than metabolizing it. The problem is energy density: batteries don't come close to comparing. Nor can they hold energy in a stable fashion for very long. Nor do they have long operational lifetimes. Nor are they cost effective on large scales. A lithium ion battery works great for small electronic devices, but they just don't hold up to high energy applications. Which is why, when the power goes out in a hospital, the diesel generators come on rather than a battery bank.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:19 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Technically, terrestrial biology uses carbohydrates to store fuel, as either complex sugars and starches or as triglycerides and/or fatty acids. I don't know of any organism that actually uses hydrocarbons, CNHM-type compounds for energy storage. Petroleum is produced by non-biological degredation under high heat and pressure. Organisms, by and large, don't make pure hydrocarbons.
posted by bonehead at 11:27 AM on January 18, 2011


But no one actually converts energy into hydrocarbons for storage.

God does.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:37 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Organisms, by and large, don't make pure hydrocarbons.

Duh. Of course, lots of bacteria and microbes crap methane, but that's a waste for them, not an energy storage mechanism.
posted by bonehead at 11:42 AM on January 18, 2011


Rats, dephlogisticated (and what an apt handle for this discussion) got there even as I was doing the research.

But have a look at this graph anyway. This is why there are effectively no electric cars or planes - batteries have a tiny energy density compared to petrol - and why hydrogen power is such a pain.

Petrol, and its various hydrocarbon pals, hits the sweet spot for portable energy storage. The only other stored energy thing that'll get you across the Atlantic in any kind of style is nuclear.

Energy you don't have to store is often better, but that's hard because of things like night, winter, windless days and Tesla not actually coming up with wireless power transmission.

I think my favourite energy source, which I read about as coming within twenty years much more than twenty years ago, is orbiting powersats in permanent sunlight, beaming microwaves down to huge rectenna farms. Who knows, with the current remarkable rate of development in PV, someone might write another article predicting them within ten.
posted by Devonian at 11:44 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Technically, terrestrial biology uses carbohydrates to store fuel, as either complex sugars and starches or as triglycerides and/or fatty acids.

You're absolutely right. I was using the terms interchangeably to make a point; carbon-based fuels are universal and enormously efficient. For those who might be confused as to the difference, both hydrocarbons and carbohydrates use carbon-hydrogen bonds (and to a lesser extent, carbon-carbon bonds) to store energy. The difference is that carbohydrates also include oxygen, which make them more soluble in water (and thus more easily used by the body).
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:44 AM on January 18, 2011


how does this method of Bio gas production differ from Joules method in terms of feasibility.
posted by clavdivs at 11:47 AM on January 18, 2011


But have a look at this graph anyway.

When I see that graph, I can't help thinking that we need to burn aluminum as fuel. ALICE for the win.
posted by bonehead at 11:52 AM on January 18, 2011


a cost of $30/barrel.

That's cost, not price. Good luck!
posted by blue_beetle at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2011


From the Joule FAQ: We estimate our costs for diesel to be as low as $30 per barrel equivalent.

Some weasel words there, but oil today is running between $80 to $90 USD per barrel, so that's roughly a third of present prices.


I somehow doubt they will sell their product at cost.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:06 PM on January 18, 2011


I'm surprised nobody has noticed that the patent mentions PLASMIDS!

BIOSHOCK IS REAL!


This reminds me of how as a kid raised on bad Science Fiction / Star Trek, it took me a long time to believe that "plasma," a fourth state of super-hot matter, was real and not a fictional bit of technobabble.
posted by straight at 12:13 PM on January 18, 2011


Miracle bacterium + sea turtles = GAMERA (yes, everthing is a bit better set to the Safety Dance)
posted by rtimmel at 12:14 PM on January 18, 2011


1. Anyone else immediately think of Neal Stephenson's Zodiac?

2. I have good news, and bad news.

The bad news? Martians have invaded Earth.
The good news? They eat terrorists and pee gasoline.


I had a dream like this, only it was a benevolent race of tree-like power generators. They provided all the energy we'd ever dreamed of—but of course, we later found out they were really there to tap into our power grid/networks and spy on us.
posted by limeonaire at 12:15 PM on January 18, 2011


Well, either which way, it's not a horrible byproduct of the system. I like oxygen, for the most part.

Isn't pure oxygen extremely flammable, though?

I like how the two sides are either "this is crap and won't happen" or "this will KILL US ALL."

I would be enjoying the Wild-West flavor of the push for sustainable fuel sources if, you know, there weren't the spectre of total environmental devastation/end of civilization hanging about.
posted by emjaybee at 12:17 PM on January 18, 2011


What about the Strategic Oil Reserve? How about the gasoline in your car? Oil heat in your house? Everybody - I mean everybody - uses hydrocarbons to store energy.

That's just storing hydrocarbons, not energy in general. It's basically just the fossil fuel supply chain. Totally inapplicable to any other energy source.

there are hidden costs associated with manufacturing and maintaining [batteries]

Clearly this puts batteries at a distinct disadvantage to oil, which has none of these drawbacks.


Batteries are a much more efficient means of storing energy

More than an order of magnitude more efficient:
  1) Solar cells are more efficient than photosynthesis.
  2) Charging a battery is more efficient than building fat.
  3) Discharging a battery is more efficient than burning fat.

Solar panels and batteries are much, much more efficient at every step in the process. And I'm not even talking about space-grade solar cells and laboratory toys. Even cheap thin-film panels are more efficient than the best photosynthesizer (sugarcane, I think).
posted by ryanrs at 12:23 PM on January 18, 2011


When I see that graph, I can't help thinking that we need to burn aluminum as fuel.

It takes a lot of energy to make aluminum.
posted by empath at 12:27 PM on January 18, 2011


Isn't pure oxygen extremely flammable, though?

It's extremely inflammable.
posted by Justinian at 12:28 PM on January 18, 2011


Isn't pure oxygen extremely flammable, though?

In and of itself? Not really, it just makes everything else around it extremely flammable.
posted by quin at 12:34 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't pure oxygen extremely flammable, though?

No. However, many things are extremely flammable in pure oxygen.

More importantly, though, these wouldn't create oxygen out of nothing. They wouldn't convert the atmosphere into pure oxygen. It's not as if these are King-Midas-bacteria that turn things into oxygen instead of gold (though the idea is just as absurd).

They would take carbon from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hydrogen from water, convert those into hydrocarbons, and convert the oxygen atoms from the carbon dioxide and hydrogen into molecular oxygen. And for all the trouble it causes us, there's relatively little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to the amount of oxygen that's already there. (20.95% O2 but only 0.039% CO2 by volume, if Wikipedia is to be believed.) And while there is a lot of oxygen in, say, ocean water, the amount used there is limited by the CO2 available.

Even if these soaked up all of the CO2 in the atmosphere, at worst the oxygen content of the atmosphere would increase from 20.95% to about 21.02%, at worst.

Now that I think of it, removing all the CO2 from the atmosphere is a nightmare scenario for other reasons (1. greenhouse gases work both ways; too little CO2 = another ice age? 2. No CO2 = nothing for plants & other photosynthetic organisms to grow on; food chain collapses) but things bursting into flame is not one of them.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:46 PM on January 18, 2011


there weren't the spectre of total environmental devastation/end of civilization hanging about.

Yeah, that guy's an asshole. Lurking there. Staring.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:50 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem is energy density: batteries don't come close to comparing.

They're good enough today, and they are constantly improving.


Nor can they hold energy in a stable fashion for very long.

Self-discharge is a couple percent per month.


Nor do they have long operational lifetimes.

Compare it to a typical gasoline car:
200k miles / 40 mph / 24 hours / 30 days = 6.9 months
200k miles / 30 mpg / 15 gallon tank = 440 cycles

Lithium batteries can beat those figures.


Nor are they cost effective on large scales. A lithium ion battery works great for small electronic devices, but they just don't hold up to high energy applications. Which is why, when the power goes out in a hospital, the diesel generators come on rather than a battery bank

That's only because the hospital didn't have to fill the generator tanks from a renewable energy source.


The original comment I replied to stated that biofuels were our best bet for sustainable energy production and that more traditional technologies like batteries were doomed to fail.

That's crap. Today's solar cells are more efficient than any photosynthesizer. High-end solar cells are more efficient than the maximum theoretical efficiency of photosynthetic metabolism. Our batteries are nearly perfectly efficient. They can deliver enough power to run a high-performance sports car. They hold enough energy to cover nearly everybody's transportation needs. All this stuff is available right now, and it works great! It's commercially available, and not outrageously expensive.

But nah, let's pin our hopes on a tiny startup with a patent and a clipart website. They're our only hope!
posted by ryanrs at 12:54 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I forgot to account for dissolved CO2 in ocean water, which would up it a bit more, but the basic conclusion remains the same.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2011


The hydrocarbon / battery debate is off the point. What no one is doing is taking kinetic energy and using that to make hydrocarbons, and then burning those hydrocarbons to get their energy back.

If you want to factoring in the weight of the battery for comparison, you've pretty much reached a point where you need to start factoring in the power need of the application, the weight of the engine in a hydrocarbon fueled system and so forth. Without that you might as well be looking for venture captial to start making MP3 players powerd by little tiny two cycle engines.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:59 PM on January 18, 2011


*rushes off to patent a line of highly addictive popsicles to encourage people to produce e coli and waste carbon*
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:01 PM on January 18, 2011


But nah, let's pin our hopes on a tiny startup with a patent and a clipart website

Um, what? A company with heavy-weights like former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta on its board of directors is hardly what I would call a "tiny startup."
posted by saulgoodman at 1:01 PM on January 18, 2011


Isn't pure oxygen extremely flammable, though?

It's extremely inflammable.


Not always. (Fluorine chemsits are the batshit crazy aunts and uncles in a chemist's family tree).
posted by bonehead at 1:03 PM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It says it can use saltwater. We've got plenty of that.

It seems pretty irresponsible to regard any system on the planet, including the oceans, as an infinite resource we can exploit to solve problems created by our own greed and inefficiency.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:43 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kid Charlemagne, I believe the ultimate goal is:
  [sunlight] → [magic] → [electricity]

Maybe in 50 years we'll be able to do this with organic slime. But in the mean time, let's not forget that we can fill that magic box with cadmium, tellurium, and lithium. Solar cells and batteries work great, especially compared to stuff that doesn't exist.

(And when invading microbes find their way inside our solar panels and batteries, we'll be like, "Ha, ha, the joke's on you. We filled the box with cadmium, tellurium, and lithium!")


you might as well be looking for venture captial to start making MP3 players powerd by little tiny two cycle engines

MIT was working on millimeter-size turbines for portable devices. Here's a PDF from Volvo Aero that has some projected numbers (see last page). Note that the high end of their "Practical Whr/kg" table assumes better efficiency than your average natural gas power plants. I think their lower bounds are plenty optimistic.
posted by ryanrs at 2:04 PM on January 18, 2011


I agree that the battery/fuel debate is off-topic. I'll concede the point on total-cycle efficiency. As for applications, it goes without saying that both Li-ion and hydrocarbons have their niches, and despite your protests to the contrary, one cannot effectively replace the other. Again, for high-energy applications like vehicle use, Li-ion batteries just don't compare to hydrocarbons—not in terms of energy density (1.30 MJ/L versus 35MJ/L for gasoline) or lifetime (your analysis ignores degradation due to time, which is roughly 20%/year for Li-ion). Nor in terms of cost, but you may fairly argue that gasoline is artificially cheap insofar as it isn't renewable, and I won't go so far as to argue the costs of a technology that hasn't been invented yet.

I don't think we can pin all our hopes on any particular technology. And it may surprise you to know that I'm actually a huge supporter of solar energy, especially solar-thermal. But batteries (no matter how they are powered) are not in any danger or supplanting hydrocarbon fuels for certain applications. Not any time soon.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:28 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Budweiser reportedly ships 3 billion gallons of bioreactor-created product in a year. Producing mass volumes using a bioreactor (even with photosynthesis) isn't that difficult, the problem is reaching economics that beat crude oil to the market.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:29 PM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I will also mention that I don't pin any particular hope on this specific venture, or their patent, or their "clipart website". There are dozens of teams working on microorganism-based biofuel production. This is not a novel concept.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:36 PM on January 18, 2011


Budweiser reportedly ships 3 billion gallons of bioreactor-created product in a year.

But it costs twice as much as petrol or diesel! (By volume, UK prices.)
posted by biffa at 2:44 PM on January 18, 2011


Budweiser reportedly ships 3 billion gallons of bioreactor-created product in a year.

But it costs twice as much as petrol or diesel! (By volume, UK prices.)


And is half as tasty.
posted by ryoshu at 3:29 PM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is not radical new secret technology, quite a few companies ahve been working on this for some time. If/when Joule Unlimited get this to market, they'll have first mover advantage, but tehre's no special secret magic to this process. I know of people that are working on this in Australia.

The real issue with this, that I am very surprised hasn't come up yet, is that the process requires concentrated CO2, not just the ~390 ppm that's hanging around in the atmosphere. Scrubbing the atmosphere to get your concentrated CO2 wouldn't ever work, it would be entirely self-defeating (analogous to a perpetual motion machine) so of course you'll use 'waste' CO2 which is basically going to be the tail pipe of a fossil fuelled power station.

What this means is that you are still burning coal or natural gas, and you can only get two bites of the cherry. While it's pretty neat to get up to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions (depending on your chimney scrubbers), this isn't going to be nearly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. The only way to avoid that (unless it's already too late) is to stop burning coal entirely, and only use NG as a transition fuel.

So it's good news, but it's not a game changer by any means.
posted by wilful at 4:05 PM on January 18, 2011


wilful: But if you get this working on a large scale, economics and all, then you can burn the captured hydrocarbons in the power station rather than dig up coal, gas etc. Displace your electricity sector emissions (about 25% of emissions in western countries), switch your heating to electrical (direct, maybe with heat pumps long term, typically close to 50% of emissions are currently heat) then that's big savings on CO2. Electrically powered vehicles and/or biofuels to displace emissions in the transport sector. Would be odd to burn oil for electricity again, but its primarily the economics that stopped that.
posted by biffa at 4:30 PM on January 18, 2011


biffa, sorry, but that makes no sense whatsoever. You still have to dig up the coal to create electricity, you run the waste through the algae scrubbers to create some biodiesel, the only net win is the transport fuel.

You cannot possibly run the biodiesel back through the power station. Apart from the fact that a new power station would be required, that starts turning into magic. If they made this absolutely as closed loop as they could, all they're doing is using photosynthesis to convert CO2 into fuel. In which case, I give you this.
posted by wilful at 4:43 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


so of course you'll use 'waste' CO2 which is basically going to be the tail pipe of a fossil fuelled power station.

Fossil fuel power stations are not the only significant sources of CO2. Cement plants also produce a lot, about 3.4% of global CO2 production. Globally about 829 million metric tons of CO2 is produced as a byproduct of cement production every year. That's ~348 million metric tons of carbon, enough for roughly 2 billion barrels of fuel. That compares to 30.7 billion barrels of oil consumed every year. 6.5% of world oil consumption being carbon neutral wouldn't be half bad. Is it enough all on its own? No, but it would put a big dent in things.
posted by jedicus at 5:16 PM on January 18, 2011


jedicus, wrong on a few accounts, sorry. Fossil fuel power stations really are the main game, ask James Hansen. The 3.4% figure isn't of total emissions, it's of fossil fuels and cement.

There's no suggestion from this technology that cement production is amenable to carbon capture. Is it? I don't know. Also, I can't imagine this technology is 100% efficient in conversion, it would have embedded energy costs of its own.

Oil consumption is rising.

Cuts of 95 percent or more are required for first world countries. A 6.5 percent cut (though likely to be far less for the reasons above) doesn't take you terribly far at all.

I'm not sceptical about this, I'm happy to see it develop, it's just not going to be any sort of a panacea at all. TANSTAAFL.
posted by wilful at 5:44 PM on January 18, 2011


The 3.4% figure isn't of total emissions, it's of fossil fuels and cement.

Fossil fuels + cement is pretty close to total emissions
. Iron and steel production is another major source and it drops off really fast after that.

There's no suggestion from this technology that cement production is amenable to carbon capture. Is it? I don't know.

The patent specifically suggests capturing CO2 from cement production facilities. It's on a pretty short list, after concentrating it from the air and nabbing it from fossil fuel burning facilities. So in the absence of other evidence I'm going to take that to mean yes.

it's just not going to be any sort of a panacea at all.

Hence "Is it enough all on its own? No, but it would put a big dent in things."
posted by jedicus at 5:50 PM on January 18, 2011


Fossil fuels + cement is pretty close to total emissions.

FTFY. Check the wee jagged line in the first data point, compared to the scale.

Really I guess the quibble is over "big". I think it will be an insignificant tiny little bump. And it's not really radical. But more power to 'em.
posted by wilful at 6:39 PM on January 18, 2011


FTFY. Check the wee jagged line in the first data point, compared to the scale.

Yes, and of the remainder cement production is one of the few major sources. Really you're making my point for me, which is that the 3.4% figure was close enough to '3.4% of all carbon emissions' as makes no difference.
posted by jedicus at 7:05 PM on January 18, 2011


nah, my point is that 3.4 percent (or a figure less than that) is closer to zero than it is to 95%.

Not that I want to get all fighty over it, it's just that this technology aint going to amount to a hill o beans.
posted by wilful at 7:47 PM on January 18, 2011


He has more than a fever, Doctor, he is on fire.

Maybe this is the plan for the North arm of Great Salt Lake, a giant bacterial oil field.
posted by Oyéah at 8:09 PM on January 18, 2011


Lithium=We will all be happy when we die.

Cadmium=We will all be happy girls when we die.
posted by Oyéah at 8:11 PM on January 18, 2011


KokuRyu writes "It seems pretty irresponsible to regard any system on the planet, including the oceans, as an infinite resource we can exploit to solve problems created by our own greed and inefficiency."

The emissions from burning the algae produced fuel is going to return the water to the oceans eventually either as rain or fresh water input. Unless this process is so successful that we end up storing significant amounts of fuel and thereby sequestering the water it can't make a dent in ocean levels.
posted by Mitheral at 9:13 PM on January 18, 2011


Late to the party here, but as has been noted a few times, there are lots of groups working on similar approaches. Issues include maintaining the microbial ecosystem of your precious engineered bugs, and conversely, worrying about them getting out in the wild. That said, I note that the Joule folks are woefully undercapitalised compared to these folks.
posted by bumpkin at 9:55 PM on January 18, 2011


What's the production rate of the largest microbial biofuel demonstration project? Are there any?


Look, it's not that I'm skeptical of the science, just the medium-term practical utility. Looking back on the history of solar panels, it took a long time before they became practical for terrestrial power generation.

The first big commercial market for solar cells was in communications satellites, starting around 1960. Ever since then, the space industry has been pouring money into improving solar cell efficiency and reliability. That's 50 years of commercial, government, and military funded photovoltaics research. It's taken billions of dollars and many thousands of patents to develop solar cells suitable for terrestrial power generation.

So with that context as a gauge, what is the current state of microbial power generation? How far along is it in the journey from laboratory to power station? Has microbial generation found its "communications satellite", its first commercial application? Are there any cozy, high margin markets where the technology can develop and mature for the next 50 years?
posted by ryanrs at 2:25 AM on January 19, 2011


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