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Cars Powered By Sunlight… No Solar Panels Required

Last month, I wrote about a private company that holds the key to keeping U.S. drivers from paying $5 per gallon at the pump.

In short, Wisconsin-based Virent discovered a way to develop fuel using plants like sugar beets, corn, sugar cane and even wood chips.

This “biofuel” offers three important benefits over traditional gasoline components:

  • Since these materials can simply be regrown, Virent’s biofuel is nearly a renewable resource. And this virtually unlimited supply should mean lower costs for consumers.
  • Virent’s production methods are much more efficient, too, producing less greenhouse gas than petroleum-based fuel processing.
  • And Virent’s fuel is compatible with current technology. So there’s no need to develop new infrastructure to roll out its biofuel to the masses.

Based on these benefits, at the time, I wrote that Virent is “setting itself up to lead the oil boom of the next generation.” And although I stand by that conviction today, Virent might not be leading the charge alone…

Because Joule Unlimited just reserved a spot at the front of the line.

Renewable Fuel – Without the Plant Life

Bedford, Massachusetts-based Joule Unlimited has developed another new way to produce biofuel that sports all the benefits listed above. And all it takes is four ingredients: sunlight, carbon dioxide waste, microorganisms and non-potable water.

Simply put, the company’s process involves siphoning carbon waste from a nearby facility, like a power plant, and combining it with specially engineered microorganisms and water.

Once the ingredients are combined in the company’s SolarConverter, the microorganisms harness solar energy to convert the carbon and water into ethanol.

In other words, Joule has found a way to make biofuel without the need for plant products. So the process costs less and doesn’t require valuable agricultural land.

Not to mention that Joule’s technology is already capable of producing more fuel using its SolarConverter than companies relying on biomass.

Joule believes it can eventually produce 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre of land each year. And it’s already achieved 60% of that goal – or 15,000 gallons – through its pilot plant in Texas. Compare that to Virent’s pilot plant, which develops 100 liters a day – or 9,400 gallons a year.

As Joule’s Senior Vice President of Biological Sciences, Dan Robertson, says:

“Even at 60% of our ultimate goal, our productivity is still leaps and bounds above [other methods].”

And just like Virent’s product, the ethanol that Joule develops can still be used without installing new infrastructure.

It’s not surprising that The Wall Street Journal named Joule its 2011 Technology Innovation Award Winner in the energy category, saying:

“Joule’s technology has the exciting potential to significantly transform the economics of the biofuel industry. If translated into wider use, it’s a potential game changer – it could become a cost-effective replacement to petroleum on a much wider scale than previously possible, especially with its non-reliance on biomass.”

And producing its biofuel on a wider scale is exactly what the company plans next…

Commercial Production on the Horizon

Joule just received $70 million in funding, which the company plans to use in getting a new plant in New Mexico ready for commercial production. The facility is going to include five acres of SolarConverters that can collect carbon dioxide from three natural gas power plants nearby. And it should begin pumping out ethanol sometime this summer.

And Joule announced today that two industry veterans are taking point in its upcoming global expansion:  Peter Erich and Paul Snaith – who’ve each clocked over 40 years combined at Shell (NYSE: RDS.A).

Launching more power plants shouldn’t be a problem, either, considering the company “will eventually be able to produce ethanol for as little as $1.23 a gallon or diesel fuel for $1.19 a gallon, less than half the current cost of both fossil fuels and existing biofuels,” according to Technology Review.

Bottom line: With Joule’s ability to create useable biofuel anywhere there’s sunlight and carbon emissions, the company is certainly on track to lead the next-generation oil boom alongside Virent.

Questions, comments? We’d love to hear from you. Find us on Google+, Facebook and Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Good investing,

Justin Fritz

Justin Fritz

, Executive Editor

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