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By Robert Rapier on Aug 21, 2009 with no responses

Disruptive Technologies Are So Overrated

It’s the end of a very long day, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the recent story from Joule Biotechnologies:

Joule Biotechnologies Introduces Revolutionary Process for Producing Renewable Transportation Fuels

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Joule Biotechnologies, Inc., an innovative bioengineering startup developing game-changing alternative energy solutions, today unveiled its breakthrough Helioculture™ technology—a revolutionary process that harnesses sunlight to directly convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into SolarFuel™ liquid energy. This eco-friendly, direct-to-fuel conversion requires no agricultural land or fresh water, and leverages a highly scalable system capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually—far eclipsing productivity levels of current alternatives while rivaling the costs of fossil fuels.

Joule SolarFuel liquid energy meets today’s vehicle fuel specifications and infrastructure, and is expected to achieve widespread production at the energy equivalent of less than $50 per barrel. The company’s first product offering, SolarEthanol™ fuel, will be ready for commercial-scale development in 2010. Joule has also demonstrated proof of concept for producing hydrocarbon fuel and expects process demonstration by 2011.

The press release is a couple of weeks old now, and I ignored it at first. It almost reads like satire. Maybe it is? But I have seen it picked up now and reported at face value by some sites. So I thought I would weigh in.

Seriously, since we starting running cars on oil 100 years ago, how many disruptive technologies have there actually been in this area? None. There have been improvements, but we are still running most of our cars on oil. A disruptive technology would be something that resulted either in us running most of our cars on something other than oil, or something that caused us to abandon our cars for something else.

Cold fusion-powered hovercraft? Now that would be disruptive. A battery with a 200-mile range for a full-sized car? Also disruptive. When we start to run short of oil? Disruptive in a different way. But the press release above? I have seen a thousand others just like it. Eventually maybe one of these disruptive pretenders will pan out. But if I was a betting man…

Tom Whipple elaborated on this story today (which is what prompted me to go ahead and write this up):

The Peak Oil Crisis: More Disruptive Technology?

Yet another potentially disruptive technology has been announced. This time a small company, Joule Biotechnologies, up in Cambridge MA says it has developed a process to produce hydrocarbon based fuels from carbon dioxide and water. As with any too-good-to-be-true announcement skeptics abound – just on general principles.

The process is centered on a “photobioreactor” (think a solar panel with liquid inside) which contains brackish water and a still secret microorganism that has been genetically engineered to absorb carbon dioxide and excrete hydrocarbons when subjected to sunlight.

Somebody with a mathematical bent calculated that if an area the size of the Texas panhandle were covered with photobioreactors, they could produce enough fuel each year that we could say goodbye to oil – drilling, depletion, OPEC, refineries, some forms of pollution, and all the rest. This is sounding much too good to be true for the company estimates the fuel could be produced for $50 a barrel.

The next step, of course, is to get this out of the laboratory and into a pilot plant so we can all see if turning CO2 and water with the help of some sunlight into fuel can really work. A pilot scale plant is planned for the southwest (where they have lots of sunlight) early next year which would be followed by a large scale demonstration plant in 2011.

These people haven’t even built a pilot plant, yet they are talking about widespread production at $50/bbl. Please. Just once I would like to see one of these far-fetched press releases end with “Product is currently for sale for $50/bbl.” If you notice, this is always what is expected. It just never materializes.