The cleantech company with the mystery microorganism it says can convert sunlight into liquid fuel announced this week it had been awarded a US patent for its “breakthrough” process. If it all sounds too good to be true, it’s worth remembering at this stage that there’s a looong distance between obtaining a patent and actually achieving business success … much less revolutionising the world’s energy prospects.
Since its founding in 2007, Massachusetts-based Joule Unlimited hasn’t been shy about its ambitions, though it’s been coy about the hows. The company claims it’s developed a process that uses an “engineered photosynthetic microorganism” to turn sunlight, waste carbon dioxide and non-fresh water directly into “ultra-clean,” sulphur-free diesel molecules. Adding further icing onto this energy cake, Joule also says its method doesn’t require precious agricultural lands, fresh water or any sort of intermediate or downstream processing. And that it can efficiently produce large amounts — 15,000 gallons per acre — of fuel for as little as $30 per barrel equivalent.
If the company can deliver all that, there’s no doubt it could become bigger than Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter combined. The key phrase there, of course, is “if.”
Consider the real-world performance of some other similarly world-changing energy technologies: the always-right-around-the-corner cellulosic ethanol, still struggling to prove it can be made economically viable; the decades-old thorium-based nuclear power; the energy-from-engineered algae of Synthetic Genomics; and, of course, nuclear fusion. All these processes do in fact work. But none has yet developed to the point of being able to save us from $100-plus-per-barrel petroleum, peak oil or climate change. All of them still have a long way to go.
The same will hold true, we’re betting, for Joule Unlimited’s process. After two years in stealth mode and another year of operating in the public’s eye, the company this January announced its pilot plant in Texas would be “operational in the first half of 2010.” Pilot production now is not set to start until the end of the year. And that’s how these things tend to go … deadlines pushed back a little bit at a time, production targets ratcheted a bit lower, cost estimates jacked up a bit higher.
Because in the real world outside of laboratories and pilot plants, true technological revolutions tend to arrive and make their mark over a period of decades, rather than months.