Sun, water and CO2 = Diesel?

Sun, water and carbon dioxide (CO2) reminds me of when I was at school learning about photosynthesis, but I never thought those three elements could be part of a solution to the world’s fuel problems.

How wrong am I though, scientists have been genetically engineering an organism that secretes diesel fuel whenever there is sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. The company Joule Unlimited claims it can produce diesel fuel and ethanol on demand at an extraordinary rate.

Organism that can create products for diesel

The American based firm says the fuel is even suitable to be used in jet engines, which if true, could become a new energy efficient, eco-friendly way to produce a fuel that is running low in natural reserves. The firm also claims it can be produced in small or large facilities and at costs comparable to the cheapest fossil fuels.

Joule’s Chief executive Bill Sims said “We make some lofty claims, all of which we believe, all which we’ve validated, all of which we’ve shown to investors. If we’re half-right, this revolutionises the world’s largest industry, which is the oil and gas industry. And if we’re right, there’s no reason why this technology can’t change the world.”

As this claim by Joule Unlimited could change how we resource fuel, there is still the stumbling block of proving it can work at large scale. It is completely unproven, and there may be other obstacles along the way, such as collecting the fuel from their organism.

Mr Donohue from Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center said, “Perhaps it can work, but the biggest stumbling block is whether it will work? There are really good ideas that fail during scale up.”

Creating fuel from other sources such as solar energy, making ethanol from corn or even extracting fuel from algae, but can this bold proposition from the company fulfil itself?

They claim to have removed the middleman that increases the costs of biofuel, stating its own organism secretes the completed product, which happens to be identical to diesel fuel or ethanol, and this remarkable organism continues to live and produce.

Joule’s claims the cynobacterium it chose is found everywhere and is less complex than algae, meaning it is easier to genetically modify. They claim it can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre annually, making it 4 times more efficient than the previous algal process for making fuel, doing the whole process at £18.45 a barrel.

These clever little organisms have been engineered to absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide, secreting ethanol or hydrocarbons, which is the basis of various fuels such as diesel. This is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis.

The company plans to set up facilities near power plants to maximise the organisms uptake of the waste carbon dioxide, to help reduce carbon emissions and increase the production of the by-products. The cyanobacterium grows on solar panel style ‘bioreactors’, meaning they can be used anywhere, and the panels designs allows maximum light absorption.

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However, I can’t help but think as good of an idea this is, is it really going to lower our carbon emissions that much? Yes, the company will be absorbing waste products from power plants, but not all of it. The by-products from their organism is creating a fuel that gives off lots of carbon emissions, so great short term idea, but is it one for the future of the planet? What do you think?

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