Fluor Corp. awarded EPC contract to build Joule's NM demo plant

By Bryan Sims | February 21, 2012

Global engineering and project manager Fluor Corp. has been awarded an engineering, procurement and construction management (EPCM) contract by Bedford, Mass.-based Joule Unlimited Inc. to design and build its first demonstration-scale renewable fuels production facility near Hobbs, N.M. Fluor booked the undisclosed contract value in the fourth quarter last year.

According to Bill Sims, president and CEO Joule, Fluor already broke ground at the roughly five-acre site in New Mexico for the design and construction of its demonstration-scale facility.

“The project is moving very quickly,” Sims told Biorefining Magazine. “We expect commissioning by late spring or early summer.”

Founded in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs, Joule’s demo plant is intended to scale up the firm’s process that is producing liquid renewable fuels currently in Leander, Texas, at pilot scale via its novel technology platform, which uses sunlight to convert proprietary engineered organisms and waste carbon dioxide into liquid hydrocarbons and ethanol.

Specifically, the key to Joule’s innovative process is in the company's trademarked Helioculture platform, which, according to Sims, incorporates photosynthetic microorganisms that can directly produce renewable fuel products such as diesel and ethanol, as well as other high-value chemicals, such as propanol and ethylene via a dehydration of ethanol, with no dependence on biomass feedstocks, agricultural land or fresh water. In parallel, Joule has developed a novel SolarConverter system that it says enables direct, continuous processing with productivities up to 100 times greater the potential of biomass-dependent methods, which typically require numerous energy-intensive steps and downstream processing to achieve an end product.

“A way to think about this would be the SolarConverter is the hardware and the engineered organisms are the software,” Sims said. “This has been a systems approach since the day the company was founded.”

A key element driving Joule’s long-term strategy for commercial development can be attributed to the modular design of its novel SolarConverter system, which enables ease of scale from tens to thousands of acres with predictable productivities that can offset heavy upfront capital expenditures.

“It’s very hard to scale an algal pond or a fermentation tank,” Sims said. “What we’ve done is created a modular system so that once we show this roughly five-acre footprint in Hobbs, N.M., we believe confidently that we’ve demonstrated what the full capabilities of the technology is. The reason for that is that we just have to add more modules.”

Sims continued, “The difference is we didn’t engineer the organism to help convert sugar into a molecule. We’ve taken sugar out of the equation. Instead, what we’ve engineered the organism to do is to actually produce and secrete the product. The input, then, rather than being algae or biomass, happens to be waste carbon dioxide. Not only is [waste carbon dioxide] available quite readily, it’s available advantageously because most countries around the world are trying to get rid of it.”

As a result of Joule’s high efficiency and productivity via its innovative technology platform, Sims said his company is able to directly produce as much as 15,000 gallons of hydrocarbons per acre per year and as much as 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year at stable costs as low as $20 per barrel of oil and 60 cents per gallon respectively with subsidies. Conversely, Sims said Joule has demonstrated that it can produce those volumes of hydrocarbons at or near $50 per barrel of oil and $1.23 per gallon of ethanol without subsidies. “We don’t have to have subsidies in order to survive,” Sims said. “We can be very competitive.”

When operational, Joule’s demonstration-scale renewable fuels and chemicals production facility in New Mexico will serve as a springboard for the company towards its aggressive commercialization strategy, according to Sims. The company has already secured access to a 1,200-acre site near its demonstration facility site near Hobbs and is in negotiations with several third-party companies and localities around the world where it plans to deploy its first commercial production facility.

“While the demonstration plant is important and we expect that it will be operating in the summer, we’re really moving towards commercialization,” Sims said. “It’s our belief that we will have initial commercial facilities and first revenues by next year in 2013.”