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In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for "a proprietary organism" – a genetically engineered cyanobacterium that produces liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, "fossil fuels on demand."

We're not talking "biofuels" – not, at any rate, in the usual sense of the word. The Joule technology requires no "feedstock," no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered micro-organisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these "inputs," it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as "artificial photosynthesis."

Joule says it now has "a library" of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has "proven the process," has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year.

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By way of comparison, Cornell University's David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels. If a few hundred barrels of crude sounds modest, recall that millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland are now used to make corn ethanol.

Joule says its "solar converter" technology makes the manufacture of liquid fossil fuels 50 times as efficient as conventional biofuel production – and eliminates as much as 90 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. "Requiring only sunlight and waste C0{-2}," it says, "[this] technology can produce virtually unlimited quantities of fossil fuels with zero dependence on raw materials, agricultural land, crops or fresh water. It ends the hazards of oil exploration and oil production. It takes us to the unthinkable: liquid hydrocarbons on demand."

The company name honours James Prescott Joule, the 19th-century British scientist. Founded only four years ago, it has begun pilot-project production in Leander, Tex. Using modular solar panels (imagine an array of conventional panels in a one-acre field), it says it will quickly ramp up production this year toward small-scale commercial production in 2012.

Joule acknowledges its reluctance to fully explain its "solar converter." CEO Bill Sims told Biofuels Digest, an online biofuels news service, that secrecy has been essential for competitive reasons. "Some time soon," he said, "what we are doing will become clear." Although astonishing in its assertions, Joule gains credibility from its co-founder: George Church, the Harvard Medical School geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984.

Joule began to generate buzz toward the end of 2010. When U.S. Senator John Kerry toured the company's labs in October, he called the technology "a potential game-changer." He noted, ironically, that the company's science is so advanced that it can't qualify for federal grants or subsidies: The government's definition of biofuels requires the use of raw-material feedstock.

In December, the World Technology Network named the company the world's top corporate player in bio-energy research. Biofuels Digest named it one of the world's "50 hottest" bio-energy enterprises, moving it ahead 10 places in the past year (from 32nd to 22nd). Selected from 1,000 eligible companies around the world, 37 of the "50 hottest" are American-based – another reason not to count out the U.S. just yet.

Conventional fossil fuels are formed from solar energy, too – in a process that takes zillions of bugs and millions of years. Joule's technology ostensibly produces the same products in less time. In other energy-producing roles, vast quantities of microbes are already hard at work underground, loosening hard-to-recover crude oil. It could be time for science to bring these bugs up into the light of day.

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Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly stated that Joule Unlimited owns a patent for producing liquid hydrocarbons from E. coli, rather than from a genetically engineered cyanobacterium. This online version has been corrected.

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