National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: More Disruptive Technology?

Yet another potentially disruptive technology has been announced.

This time a small company, Joule Biotechnologies, up in Cambridge MA says it has developed a process to produce hydrocarbon based fuels from carbon dioxide and water. As with any too-good-to-be-true announcement skeptics abound – just on general principles.


The process is centered on a “photobioreactor” (think a solar panel with liquid inside) which contains brackish water and a still secret microorganism that has been genetically engineered to absorb carbon dioxide and excrete hydrocarbons when subjected to sunlight.

The feedstock is plain old carbon dioxide – available anywhere fossil fuel is burned. This process does not require corn or cellulosic biomass such as switchgrass – only sunshine and CO2. The most interesting claim for this process is that the system may be capable of producing 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year. This is 50 times what corn-based ethanol can produce from an acre of corn.

Somebody with a mathematical bent calculated that if an area the size of the Texas panhandle were covered with photobioreactors, they could produce enough fuel each year that we could say goodbye to oil – drilling, depletion, OPEC, refineries, some forms of pollution, and all the rest. This is sounding much too good to be true for the company estimates the fuel could be produced for $50 a barrel.

The next step, of course, is to get this out of the laboratory and into a pilot plant so we can all see if turning CO2 and water with the help of some sunlight into fuel can really work. A pilot scale plant is planned for the southwest (where they have lots of sunlight) early next year which would be followed by a large scale demonstration plant in 2011.

Joule’s process is similar to algae-based biofuel production, except Joule insists they are not using algae. The company says their microorganisms produce fuel directly and only have to be separated to be used as a fuel.

Other companies have attempted to produce fuel in bioreactors before, but were unable to scale the process to commercial size either because the reactors were too expensive or the microorganisms could not be controlled sufficiently to produce fuel at a steady rate. Anyway as with EEStor’s large capacitor, all we can do is wait for future announcements and hope that something will work.

While Joule is making some fairly specific claims for its process, they are not the only people looking at advanced biofuels. Last month Exxon and Dow Chemical announced partnerships with biotechnology firms to develop organisms that will excrete fuel. Dow’s project is furthest along and has announced plans to build a demonstration plant that can produce 100,000 gallons/yr at a Freeport TX chemical plant. This project is to consist of 3,100 5×50 foot covered troughs. Like Joule, the Dow project plans to genetically modify algae to convert as much CO2 into ethanol as possible, thereby bypassing the refining step.

The Exxon — Synthetic Genomics project is also interesting in that not only is Exxon committing $300 million or perhaps $600 million to the effort, but that it has partnered with J. Craig Venter of the human genome project fame. This partnership believes that bioengineering has reached the point where microorganisms can be modified to produce fuels economically at commercial scales. Not to be left out, BP (formerly British Petroleum) announced they were investing $10 million in a partnership to use algae to convert sugars into useful fuels.

There is clearly a message or two behind all this activity. Somewhere along the line, Exxon opined that using algae to produce biofuels was the only technology they had looked at that made sense from an economic and scalability point of view. Nearly every announcement has stressed that their process did not require food crops such as sugar or corn as feedstock. Joule goes further to say that their process did not require any agricultural quality land at all and would work just as well in the desert. The message here is that using food crops to make fuel is rapidly falling out of favor and probably has a short half-life.

None of this is going to arrive tomorrow. Even if the development of bioreactor technology goes well, it is likely to take decades to replace even a small fraction of the 30 billion (1.2 trillion gallons) of oil and substitutes the world is consuming each year.

On the issue of transportation fuels, many observers have already pointed out that we would be much better off with practical electric cars and trucks replacing internal combustion engines rather than using biofuels to power vehicle fleets. If for no other reason, an electric vehicle is many times more efficient than the best internal combustion engine and given the likelihood of energy shortages ahead, the world is going to need all the efficiency we can get.

No one should look upon large batteries or biofuels as a panacea or a silver bullet that will quickly solve fossil fuel depletion and global warming problems. For now these technologies are just glimmer of hope and it will be some time, and likely much hardship, before they disrupt much of anything.