July 27, 2009 / 10:17 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. company hopes to make fuel from sunlight, CO2

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. start-up Joule Biotechnologies hopes to make commercial amounts of motor fuel by feeding engineered organisms high concentrations of carbon dioxide and sunlight, its top executive said.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, which launched on Monday, hopes to make up to 20,000 gallons per acre of fuel a year by late 2011 or early 2012 at prices competitive with $50 oil. It concentrates sunlight in a solar converter, directing it and carbon dioxide to engineered organisms to make fuel similar to ethanol.

“This is the first solar company that is producing liquid fuel as opposed to electrons,” said Joule President and CEO Bill Sims. He said Joule is different from companies that make biofuels from plants because its process does not need a lot of land to grow food and energy crops like corn or switchgrass.

“This is definitely not a biofuels company,” Sims added.

He would not reveal what the organisms are, only saying they are not algae, another life form companies are experimenting with to make biofuels. In addition, Sims said the organisms do not need fresh water but can be grown in both brackish water or graywater, which is nonindustrial waste water from sources like baths and washing machines.

Joule, which has less than $50 million in funding, is one of dozens of companies hoping to make motor fuels from sources other than corn.

Making ethanol from that grain has been criticized for needing a lot of water and land and helping to lift food prices. Some companies hope to make cellulosic ethanol, or fuel from the tough woody bits of plants like switch grass and poplar trees, but progress has been slow.

The federal government offers incentives for companies to blend advanced fuels into gasoline and mandates for the such blending rise annually.

Sims said since the Joule organisms absorb the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the fuel could eventually play a role in efforts to cut such emissions. He hopes the company will be allowed to generate carbon credits from making the fuel, which should help keep the cost of producing the fuel competitive with oil.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Christian Wiessner

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