Fossil fuels are dirty business, from exploration to consumption and every step in between, but one Massachusetts-based company is looking to revolutionize the energy industry by pioneering a new way to farm sustainable fuel.
Joule is pioneering a way of converting carbon dioxide gas into liquid energy. Their production process is free from the feedstock issues and resource constraints that hamper competing bio-energy sources like corn-based ethanol or diesel that’s made from algae. And best of all their system has been proven to work.
“We produce ethanol, diesel and jet fuel,” said Tom Jensen, Joule’s executive vice president and head of corporate development, through a process that he described as industrialized photosynthesis. Compared to traditional petroleum their products have a 90 to 100 percent smaller carbon footprint meaning, “It’s a CO2-neutral fuel.”
Contrasting Joule’s stuff to rival energy sources is eye-opening. Jensen said their Sunflow fuels are an order of magnitude more efficient than even second-generations of competing technologies. According to him, a first-gen bio fuel is capable of yielding about 400 gallons per acre, per year. A second-generation might increase output to 2,000 gallons per acre, per year, while algae-based bio-diesel might be as productive as 5,000 gallons annually.
But Joule’s system far outpaces these levels. Their diesel process can yield 15,000 gallons per acre-year and their ethanol system is even more fruitful, delivering about 25,000 gallons annually. Jensen said, “Nobody can do what we can do in terms of converting CO2 into drop-in fuels,” that is, liquid energy that’s essentially ready to go right into your car or truck’s tank.
This technology is coming at a timely point. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration we consumed about 19 million barrels of petroleum every day in the United States last year. That’s a staggering figure and one that clearly indicates just how reliant we are on oil, though this figure does not take into account other fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Overall the importance of these energy sources is hard to fathom. But according to Jensen, Joule is poised to make “a substantial contribution to sustainable infrastructure” thanks to its market-ready drop-in fuels.
For a little context, refiners get about 11 gallons of diesel from a barrel of crude oil. Taking our average daily petroleum consumption and multiplying it by that figure means America burns roughly 209 million gallons of diesel every day. In comparison Joule’s production process yields approximately 41 gallons of this stuff per acre per day. So, in order for them to offset just 10 percent of our daily diesel consumption, which works out to a little less than 21 million gallons, they’d need a skosh more than 512,000 acres of land. With 640 acres to a square mile that works out to roughly 800 square miles, a space two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. Accordingly it seems unlikely they’d ever be able to scale things up that far meaning Joule’s energy will likely only supplement oil, not replace it.
Still, concerns about CO2 emissions, climate change, hydraulic fracturing and related issues are hastening the need for earth-friendly energy. Joule has been developing its technology since 2007 and according to Jensen it’s “by no means a trivial feat.”
And fortunately for them they’ve received some help from the automotive sector. As one of Joule’s partners, Audi is lending them a hand in several ways. “We can help them financially a little bit,” said Sandra Novak, regulatory engineer at Volkswagen Group of America. “It is also good to have some famous brand next to you,” she added, in order to “draw some attention.” It seems Audi’s global presence and sterling reputation can only help Joule as it looks to revolutionize the fuels industry while simultaneously helping the environment.
Carbon dioxide is a big concern these days as it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. Fortunately Joule’s process requires a steady stream of CO2. For consistent supplies they’re planning on locating future production facilities near big carbon sources like coal-fired powerplants or cement factories where they can tap into flue gases that would normally be vented to atmosphere. Obviously this is beneficial for them and planet earth.
Challenges on the Horizon
But all is not perfect with Joule’s plan. For instance, compression-ignition vehicles are a small fraction of the overall U.S. market. According to the Diesel Technology Forum there were about 7.4 million oil-burining cars, SUVs, trucks and vans in operation last year. That’s an increase of more than 360,000 compared to 2013, but still that figure only represents a tiny percentage of the vehicles on the road given that the total U.S. fleet is likely north of 250 million.
Sure, diesel provides plenty of benefits over gasoline including 20 percent better fuel economy, abundant low-RPM torque and mechanical longevity, but the added cost of these cars and trucks is hard for many customers to bear. Additionally, gasoline prices have been tumbling lately, something that makes diesel an even more difficult proposition since it’s usually about 20 percent more expensive.
And then there’s ethanol. Whether corn-based or derived from cellulose this alcoholic fuel always seems to start a firestorm of controversy, both political and otherwise. Aside from being up to 30 percent less energy dense than straight gasoline, something that results in significantly lower fuel economy, it’s also quite ...