Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Joule Unlimited - A Game Changer?

The Globe published an article yesterday about a company called 'Joule Unlimited', a company which claims to be able to produce ethanol and other hydrocarbon based fuels using only sunlight, water and CO2. They also claim to be able to produce it for $30~ a barrel - a big drop from the current, and wildly fluctuating prices seen at the gas station right now.

The prospect of unlimited cheap fuel is obviously, as John Kerry has called the new technology, a 'game changer'. That might even be an understatement. A stable gas price would also stabilize the cost of everything else, from food to computer chips, since the cost of transporting everything would be reliable. Western countries would be able to end their dependance on Middle Eastern oil (and the wars that accompany that dependance), anti-US sentiments would soften abroad and the world would be a safer place for it, offshore drilling and the high risks and oil spills that accompany it would be unnecessary, and the waste CO2 produced by large manufacturing plants would suddenly become a commodity. Sounds too good to be true, right? It's too early to say wether this is the golden goose of fossil fuels - sorry, 'solar fuels', as they are calling it but it can't hurt to dream.

Cynical me - the first thought that popped into my head was 'Haliburton will never let that happen!' and then 'Does this mean we'll be driving cars forever - and is that a good thing?'. Well, maybe. If it's ethanol that they're producing, it might be, since ethanol is cleaner to burn than regular crude oil. But if it's regular oil they're producing, it wouldn't do much in terms of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, unless they could also use the same technology for carbon capture - a technology which British billionare Richard Branson has offered a 25 million dollar prize for. So it remains to be seen how committed they are to the environment.

So supposing they are committed (and they might be - apparently the founder of Joule Unlimited is also the man who founded the Human Genome project). Awesome. Then this might really be the discovery of our generation. And we'll all live forever wearing jet packs and eating astronaut ice cream.

But (I told you I was cynical) I don't imagine oil companies or oil producing countries will be happy about this. And while that thought tickles me pink, I'm ever so curious to see how strong their reaction is... I'm plenty sure the Dick Cheneys of our time won't go without a fight... So stay tuned, sportsfans. These are interesting times.


Anonymous said...

I would think that oil companies would be ecstatic about a development such as this.

It is a huge expense to be constantly exploring for and harvesting new pockets of oil.

When all that will be necessary to increase production is to add additional photosynthetic reactors on cheap land, that's a no-brainer.

This means no longer having to spend capital to use/maintain supertankers or refineries, or many other costs involved in producing oil.

I offer that Big-Oil will still remain Big-Oil if they switched to this technology. They would be first to market efficiently as the distribution chain is already established.

I think this is a win-win for almost everybody.

Irene said...

Hey anonymous,

thanks for your reply - it's true that if the bacteria are patented (and I'm sure they will be) then only established companies with deep pockets will be able to afford to use said technology. But I imagine (and it's really anyone's guess how they plan on distributing their 'product' to market) it might also be possible for this to become more 'grassroots'?

For example, could a local co-op invest in a reactor to produce their own oil for free - in much the same way people can buy solar power now?

Hypothetically, that might cut BP out as the supplier.