Breathe easier in Australia with Helioculture
In a crowded world where resources are increasingly contested, there is naturally a focus on fuel alternatives, especially those that are clean and renewable. A truly renewable energy source has been the Holy Grail of the energy sector for decades as nations seek to find a replacement for traditional energy sources such as oil and natural gas, that are increasingly difficult to secure and refine and which cause pollution and other unwanted side-effects. In the meantime people make their own attempts at energy saving by trying to minimise their carbon footprint, using things like an EcoSwitch or simply by purchasing energy efficient appliances, treading water so to speak until a breakthrough makes renewable energy a real possibility.
However, most renewable energy schemes have their drawbacks. For one, they often require immense amounts of arable land that must be committed to the process. Wind farms and projects that use algae to produce hydrocarbons that can be refined into oil fall into this category. Other possible solutions have proved to be difficult to scale effectively, as with solar energy initiatives. Recently, however, Joule Biotechnologies, based in Massachusetts in the United States, have reported great success with their Helioculture process, which could soon be the answer to Australia’s energy efficiency prayers.
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The Helioculture process as described by Joule is a combination of solar and biologic processes. A genetically-altered algae species is exposed to sunlight and carbon dioxide, and directly produces hydrocarbons or ethanol. The key advantages to Joule’s process over other renewable energy processes are:
- The process produces hydrocarbons directly and does not require a secondary refining stage.
- Helioculture does not require large amounts of arable land or a large-scale biomass; Joule claims they could supply all the transportation energy needed by the United States from a region the size of the Texas Panhandle (about 67,000 kilometres).
- The process does not require fresh water and can use saltwater or even sewage-sourced ‘grey water’.
These features make Helioculture ideal for Australia, where there is plenty of sun-soaked land that could be set up as processing centres for Helioculture-produced fuels. Joule calculates that the cost of their fuel would be very competitive with today’s crude oil, predicting about 31 cents a litre.
Joule claims it can produce 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre of land used, and that their process is modular, meaning that individual ‘sheets’ of algae solution and solar collectors can be connected to form fuel production facilities of almost any size. These numbers are incredibly more efficient than other ethanol or biofuel processes. At their test facility in Texas they have only managed 8,000 gallons per acre – but this number is still much more efficient than other biofuel processes.
Even better, because the process used carbon dioxide, a common pollutant from power plants and factories, Joule anticipates setting up collection points near these facilities in order to absorb vented gases, scrub them of impurities, and secure their supply of CO2 that way. This would make the entire process doubly effective in increasing energy efficiency and reducing pollution.
Joule Biotechnologies currently have no plans to build a facility in Australia but are actively seeking partners to begin plans. They have commissioned a plant in New Mexico in the United States to begin producing fuel, and partnered with auto-maker Audi, who will test, evaluate, and (they hope) validate Joule’s claims. If an international company with a stake in energy production such as Audi gives the process an endorsement, one can imagine that Joule will have many suitors seeking to set up production all over the world.
Whether or not Australia is among the first to attempt this remains to be seen. But imagine a world where not only is fuel for our infrastructure readily and plentifully available without having to drill, strip-mine, or frack for it, but which in turn absorbs some of the pollution produced? While time will tell if this new technology can truly scale sufficiently, it’s an exciting possibility. Australia owes it to its people to do its due diligence on this project and be prepared to invest if it proves out.