I have long believed that our “energy problems” are way overblown, both from the right (“drill, baby drill”) and from the left (“peak oil”). After all, the issue is energy, not oil, and we are literally awash in energy. The sun bombards us with trillions of times more energy than we need every single day. Scientists just have to come up with a better technology to harvest the sun’s energy, rather than our current cockamamie scheme of waiting millions of years for plants to fossilize into oil and coal, then burning it to dump tons of climate changing carbon and other even nastier pollutants into our environment.
Well, they have. There are wind turbines that take sun-generated wind and turn it into energy, and even solar cells, which directly turn sunlight into energy. But people still complain because we are “dependent” on liquid fuels like oil for our cars.
But now there is a solution for that too. A small company called Joule Unlimited in Cambridge Mass received a patent last year for a genetically modified organism that eats carbon dioxide (the main cause of climate change) and — using sunlight — directly changes it into liquid fuel, including gasoline and diesel fuel. And they have now demonstrated their process, and are starting to commercialize it.
Right now, oil is selling for over $90 a barrel, but this process produces the same amount of fuel for $30 a barrel. That’s right, you can start imagining paying one third as much for gasoline at the pump.
And since their process uses carbon dioxide as their main input, it is pretty much carbon neutral. And it doesn’t require massive amounts of land, as growing corn for biofuels does.
A reasonable question might be: is this for real? Well, the co-founder of Joule is George Church, the Harvard Medical School geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984. And sitting on their board of directors is John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, former White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton and a former principal on the National Security Council. Podesta also served on Obama’s transition team and many other political positions; many of which were technology related. Senator John Kerry toured their facility in October, and called the technology “a potential game-changer”. And in December, the World Technology Network named Joule the world’s top company in bio-energy research.
Ironically, the company doesn’t qualify for alternative energy grants or subsidies because its technology is so advanced that it doesn’t meet the definition for biofuels, which require some kind of agricultural raw material.
But what I find even more ironic is that this “potentially game changing” US company is receiving very little media attention in the US. I found out about it from an article in a British newspaper. Is there some reason why this isn’t getting more attention from the US corporate-owned media?
UPDATE: More good news to go along with cheaper fuels — a more efficient engine that lowers pollution.
Wow! Thats awesome. I guess the lack of press was to keep their work secret until they could perfect the processes and apply for the patents. Now if we don’t export those jobs to ….
This would be quite awesome if we could mainstream this technology. I would love to see this take off. Like the author said, I think the problems of oil are overblown. We have a lot of oil, but of course not unlimited. So something needs to be done eventually, and this might be the answer. I was watching something on TV about algae, those little suckers can make a lot of energy as well.
I don’t understand the media. I can’t understand why something like this isn’t big news. Like when Voyager reached the edge of the solar system last month.
To me that is big stuff, we have sent a spaceship to the outer edge of the solar system, 17 billion kilometers away, and is approaching interstellar space. But did anyone see this on the nightly news. I didn’t.
This is cool. I haven’t even seen this in the local (Boston) press, although I don’t always get a chance to read the paper every day.
In MA, the state is constantly reviewing its definition of biofuels. I’ve been watching the most recent discussions around including waste wood (its related to one of my case studies). I don’t remember the exact process, but you can petition the state to add a new source to its definition of biofuels without going through the legislature.
hmmm. What will the benefit be if we are able to put more CO2 into the atmosphere for less money? Even if we have bacteria to return it to fuel, increasing the amount that cycles through can’t be good. Will our agricultural space turn into fuel producing bacteria farms as demand increases? It seems to me that we will be creating a self-reinforcing cycle similar to the one that created the giant farms that now feed us.
This sounds like a “build more lanes on the highway to ease congestion” solution. Cheap energy will do nothing to ease our current problems and only sustain the bad practices that have become entrenched. More cars, more roads, more people, more energy, less natural space, less natural cycling.
Be careful what you wish for …
There are people working on better solutions that don’t involve being able to get more things. http://steadystate.org/enough-is-enough/
“Even if we have bacteria to return it to fuel, increasing the amount that cycles through can’t be good.”
This is the kind of statement that gets environmentalists labeled as anti-science, because there is no scientific basis for it. The problem, as identified in peer-reviewed article, is that there is a correlation between the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the average global temperature. As our technology has progressed, we continue to dump more CO2 into the atmosphere, while doing nothing to take it out. If you can point to a single peer-reviewed article that suggests that the “amount that cycles through” is more of a problem than the total amount present at a given moment, than I will reconsider your argument.
If we can replace that with technology that is carbon neutral, there is a VERY big benefit. It’s not just about cheaper fuel, and it’s not about getting more things. It’s about replacing technologies that are decidedly NOT carbon neutral with ones that are.
As for land usage, if we replaced all the ethanol-producing farms with these bacteria farms, that would probably be a good thing. Ethanol production requires such a significant amount of land use and energy consumption that the benefits are not as significant as they seem. Imagine how nice it would be if we could convert those ethanol farms back to farms that produce…I don’t know…food? Besides, did you not read the part where IK pointed out that this technology doesn’t require massive amounts of land?
What Michael said!
All plants and animals have a carbon cycle. Animals exhale carbon dioxide and plants turn it back into oxygen (and fix the carbon into plant matter). There is no problem with this cycle (obviously). The problem is when we take fossil fuels, which store that fixed carbon, and release the carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This new process takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (just like plants do) so it is a big win.
And as Michael surmised, this new process is already more than twice as efficient land-wise than ethanol production, so it would return farm land to growing food. I didn’t mention it, but the new process also can use brackish or even sea water, unlike ethanol production, which of course requires lots of fresh water. Another win.
Glenn, I do agree with your point that our economy is too dependent on “growth” for the sake of growth, and that link you give is a good one. But don’t be a modern day luddite.
I am worried, though, about what else comes out of a car besides the carbon to pollute the cities. I don’t know very much about the entire process, but I have a feeling what makes me feel stuffed up and awful around a busy street is more than carbon.
I’m also worried about people’s behaviors once they feel that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with driving everywhere. I can imagine more suburbs, bigger cars, … less worry about recycling, or growing one’s own garden, or turning off the lights, etc.
Glenn is right to point out that there may be externalities that we should still be concerned about. Developing carbon neutral technology is vitally important to deal with climate change. There is not doubt about that. However, hydrocarbon fuels still produces pollution, much of which disproportionately affects vulnerable populations. There is no reason to think that just because a new technology is carbon neutral in its life cycle that it somehow won’t raise, or at least continue to reinforce, environmental injustices. There is also the cultural impacts that Dana raises that I agree are important to consider.
I personally think this is a really cool development. Climate change is the most challenging social and environmental problem we’ve ever had to confront. And there is no doubt that vulnerable populations are also going to be disproportionately impacted by climate change. Any progress that mitigates climate change is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to think through the possible negative impacts and attempt to proactively address them. What I would hate to see is that our legitimate concerns about climate change override longstanding problems with disproportionate environmental impacts related to hydrocarbon based fuels.
Reading the Globe’s piece, I had a sudden vision of every industrial building, power plant, and anything else that generates CO2, capped by a rooftop microorganism farm, sequestering the CO2 produced in the building and trickling out liquid hydrocarbons. Maybe the very best part of this is that these microcritters, unlike all other sources of biofuel, can make use of salt or other non-potable water — certainly the greywater from the buildings they live on. We still should be switching to electricity for most of our transportation, for air quality if nothing else, but this is good news indeed.
Just another example of how using the natural processes of the earth in the right way can change how we impact the environment. Back in the 70’s, a book called “Diet For a Small Planet” theorized that you could end world hunger by taking all the land that produces grain for the beef industry and turn it into land that produces grain for human consumption, providing 1 cup of grain to each person in the world every day for a year. This is a simple solution to a very big problem, and is found by using the same materials we already have in a different way. And yet, this theory was/is ignored.
Sorry if that was random, but this situation just reminded me of it. Here we have a breakthrough in technology, allowing us to essentially have limitless quantities of a valuable resource, and yet the public is largely unaware, and we see no move to integrate this new technology.
When Dana (comment 7) worries about “what else comes out of a car besides carbon” that is a valid concern, but one should not conclude that it would be bad to have less expensive fuel because it would encourage people to drive larger cars. I have bad news — people have been buying gas guzzling SUVs, RVs, and other auto-monstrosities even with expensive fuel that belches carbon (and other pollutants) into the atmosphere.
Are you saying that you don’t like this new process because it lowers the cost of fuel and solves the carbon problem, unless we can also solve the problems of suburbs and people turning off their lights? Seriously? That would definitely give environmentalists a bad name!
Let me make an analogy. Jeff (comment 10) proposes a solution to world hunger. Using Dana’s reasoning, that would just encourage the formerly hungry people to have more children, who would then need more grain and we would have hunger again. So we shouldn’t try to feed the hungry. Terrible conclusion, but it is no different from saying that we shouldn’t have cheaper energy.
Yes, there are lots of problems with our car obsessed nation. But do you really want us to disregard a technological advance that lowers energy costs, removes our incentives to fight stupid wars over oil, and helps solve problems with global warming because you would rather that people be forced to use public transportation and be monetarily punished when they forget to turn off their lights?
Also note that not all burnable hydrocarbons are created equal. For example, burning ethanol creates significantly fewer pollutants than gasoline. My home uses natural gas for heating and cooking, but I don’t feel “stuffed up and awful”. One would hope that since this new process can create not just conventional gasoline, but also diesel and other fuels, that we can figure out a fuel that doesn’t make Dana feel stuffed up and awful and adapt our cars to use it (after all, we adapted to unleaded fuels).
Finally, I am actually one of those people who thinks the current price of gasoline is too low. That’s because it should reflect its true cost including “externalities”. We currently subsidize oil drilling. We fight expensive wars and kill people to keep the oil flowing. We spend tax dollars to clean up after oil spills that damage the environment. There are health care costs from sicknesses caused by pollution. The cost of gasoline should reflect its true cost, including environmental damage. Only then will better alternatives be developed. That would be a true free market, where external costs are not subsidized by taxpayers, as we currently do.
Adding to Dana’s concerns in a different way. The article states the scientists engineered E.coli bacteria. Has the engineering process rendered this human harmful bacteria less toxic to humans? If so great, if not is there any danger to cultivating it and turning it loose, or would it be contained in some manner? Always thinking 🙂
I completely agree with you, IK, that gasoline should reflect its full cost, most especially its externalities.
PatriotSgt – all you have to do is poop and you will have turned E.coli loose.
There are LOTS of strains of E. coli, and most of them are harmless. As Starluna points out, all warm-blooded animals have some form of it living in their lower intestine and so it is found in their fecal matter. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escherichia_coli
And isn’t gasoline more harmful than E. coli to children and other living things?
The pilot plant is just north of me here in Leander, Texas, an exurb NW of Austin. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll have to drive by and check ’em out. There’s another local (Cedar Park) company, EStor, which is attempting to develop new battery technology. Looks like Joule is hiring, too bad I don’t have a PhD in Microbiology.
Don, if you get any good info, please pass it on to us.
The problem with biofuels is that they’re incredible inefficient; it’s far more efficient to simply convert solar power directly into electricity, rather than using algae or corn as a middle-man. Additionally, if we were to replace fossil fuels with biofuel we would need something along the lines of 17 earth landmasses. So even if we used every inch of usable land to harvest algae biofuels we would only have 1/17 our fuel requirements.
Just putting things in perspective before people run out and spend their life savings on Joule’s IPO.
David, you missed the whole point of this post. This new process is not a biofuel. There is no algae or corn “middle-man”. You don’t grow anything and then convert it into fuel, it converts carbon dioxide directly into fuel.
I agree that people should not run out and spend their life savings on Joule’s IPO.