The price for a barrel of oil is on the rise again and as a result the interest in alternative fuel is on the rise. A startup has recently partnered with Dow chemicals (I know, not the best reputation) to exploit their new method of farming algae for biofuel production. Their new process can decrease the price per barrel of biofuel to $50 or lower.
Algae-based biofuels come closest to Joule’s technology, with potential yields of 2,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre; yet even so, the new process would represent an order of magnitude improvement. What’s more, for the best current algae fuels technologies to be competitive with fossil fuels, crude oil would have to cost over $800 a barrel says Philip Pienkos, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. Joule claims that its process will be competitive with crude oil at $50 a barrel. In recent weeks, oil has sold for $60 to $70 a barrel.
Joule’s process seems very similar to approaches that make biofuels using algae, although the company says it is not using algae. The company’s microorganisms can be grown inside transparent reactors, where they’re circulated to ensure that they all get exposed to sunlight, and they are fed concentrated carbon dioxide–which can come from a power plant, for example–and other nutrients. (The company’s bioreactor is a flat panel with an area about the size of a sheet of plywood.) While algae typically produce oils that have to be refined into fuels, Joule’s microorganisms produce fuel directly–either ethanol or hydrocarbons. And while oil is harvested from algae by collecting and processing the organisms, Joule’s organisms excrete the fuel continuously, which could make harvesting the fuel cheaper.