The facility in New Mexico will consist of a five-acre “module” made up of multiple 100-meter-long rows of SolarConverters connected to a central processing plant that collects and separates the fuel. The facility, slated to begin producing ethanol this summer, is located near three natural-gas power plants, each of which can provide carbon dioxide. Joule Unlimited has leased a total of 1,200 acres at the site and says it plans to add additional five-acre modules over time.
In a peer-reviewed paper published last year in the journal Photosynthesis Research, Robertson and others showed that their process can achieve an overall efficiency of 7.2 percent in converting sunlight to liquid fuel. The figure is roughly seven times higher than the efficiency rate of systems that use naturally occurring microörganisms. The key to the increased efficiency, Robertson says, is that the engineered bacteria can secrete liquid fuels continuously. Nonengineered microbes produce oils that have to be harvested and refined into fuels, and the organisms have to be ground up to release the oils, so each batch yields only a single harvest.
The microbes that attain 60 percent of the company’s stated productivity goal have been secreting ethanol in outdoor SolarConverters at the company’s three-acre pilot plant for the past six months. To increase efficiency, Robertson says, the company will further manipulate the organisms’ genetic makeup to limit all biological processes that compete with fuel production. For example, Joule has been working for several years to shut down genetic pathways that allow the organisms to keep growing. That should enable them to devote more energy to fuel production.
Robertson says that the company is optimizing production in its diesel-secreting microbes. It doesn’t have long-term data about the productivity of these organisms. In one lab test, one strain produced fuel at a rate that would be equivalent to 10 percent of the company’s commercial goal of 15,000 gallons per acre per year.