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.

29 thoughts on “Disruptive Technologies Are So Overrated”

  1. From the story on Business Wire (at the end naturally)

    Schwartz Communications
    Dan Borgasano, 781-684-6660

    The whole article is nothing more than fluff from a PR company looking for sucker investors.

    Maybe Business Wire is just a shill for this type of thing?

  2. Business Wire is just a business aggregating PR feeds, nothing more. They push what is given to them.

    And PR firms do what they do best : lie, sugar-coat, cheat and distort.

    Now, as to the process itself.

    Are there fundamental efficiency (quantum efficiency level) ceilings that completely prevent their energetic calculations, sans the price estimate, from being true even in the ballpark?

    Is it all just utter bullcrap?

    This should be possible to calculate, even without knowing what type of micro-organism or solar concentrator or whatnot they are using.

  3. Just the other day I was reading a press release form a company called Rentech. Making wild claims about doing something or other in California. I would love for Rentech to succeed but they are just another disruptive technology.

    “disruptive technology”

    By RR definition using oil and the ICE is a disruptive technology. Using a little hyperbole, using the criteria that RR demands, RR should buy a milk cow and a little car to take his children to school. Dare I say it. Many places in the world animals are used for transportation. Getting kids to school is not that important where malaria and cholera is a common as the common cold.

    I look at “disruptive technology” as something that prevents us from achieving out goal because of popular misconceptions. If you goal is to reduce fossil fuel use and reduce ghg emissions, the big dog is nuclear power. The little dog is anaerobic digestion. The middle dog is biomass in fluidized bed boilers.

    Established technology is mundane is not much fun to blog about.

  4. Robert,
    Along the lines of disruptive technology, I was wondering about your take on this…from a co. called Petrobank. Thanks

    They are showing that they can upgrade thick heavy oil (8-12 API) to light crude quality (36 API) using underground THAI/CAPRI technology. (Underground upgrading of oil). If successful and scaled up THAI/CAPRI could revolutionize the recovery and economics of heavy oil and oilsands reserves. The Canadian oilsands which is an amount of oil several times Saudi Arabian oil reserves could become cheaper and cleaner to develop and basically push off peak oil for a decade or two.

  5. Let's just say too many technologies are fasely labeled disruptive . By definition, truely disruptive technologies aren't overrated 8)They change things.

    The black swan theorist say it is tough to predict that a disruptive technology is coming. ie: Cell phone adoption . Gartner group earlier predicitions of cell phone growth were off by levels of magnitude.

    Perhaps something like a blacklight power, eestor,a new fuel cell. some crazy biology brewing or genetic engineered bug can do something interesting. unlikely but who knows

    If we really cared to reduce oil imports perhaps we can reduce the speed limits and enforce them at 55. This would reduce oil imports but we don't (and I don't particularly)care to do it

    Jim Takchess

  6. What I think has been going on here the last couple of months with the flurry of PR pieces from various alt fuel / biofuel companies (algal, cellulosic etc) is that DoE is evaluating hundreds of applications they have received for the $650 million they have for govt $$ for demo, pilot and commercial scale biofuel facilities.

    Another example, a CT firm this week with a PR that says it can start building a 15 MMGY cellulosic ethanol (wood wastes) plant in a couple of months, have it up and running by mid 2010, producing 85 cent/gal ethanol, then will add modules monthly to get to 80-100 MMGY . . . . Sure.

  7. "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."

    This sounds like one of those schemes that uses 9-volt batteries to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. (Don't you remember how in 5th grade science class, you're teacher would stick wires from a 9-volt battery into a glass of water and oxygen and hydrogen would bubble up? Why, all we need to do is scale that up.)

  8. Yes, Joule is probably baloney. Miracle soloutions to oil are few and far between. (Although Rentech may also be baloney, at least from a commercial point of view).
    But I did take heart from one of RR's comments: A battery-powered car with a 200-mile range would be a disruptive technology.
    That is not so far-fetched, and may happen within 10 years. A few 100-mile range vehicles are coming to market soon. The GM Volt will go 40 miles, and then 50 mpg. It is first-gen.
    Of course, there are already 10 million CNG vehicles on the road now, so there is an alternative to the oil-car, maybe not disruptive.
    I think the future is bright, and that we are on the cusp of another 20-year boom in the global economy. The amount of venture capital available, the number of R&D shops globally is unprecedented. As readers of this blog know, any good energy idea is financed, and many that are not so good.
    The short window of higher oil prices (2004-2208) led to the GM Volt, and several cars that get 50 mpg. And, an epic glut in natural gas. In just four years!
    Imagine another 10 years.

  9. Oil prices rally every time a positive economic indicator comes out. It's closing in on $75 a barrel on news of a rise in home sales. We could see $150 a barrel before the recession is even declared over. Until substitutes are able to take up the slack,the world economy will keep cycling down. Lower GDP means less demand. I think a lot of entrepreneurs will get rich on the next price spike. All they need is a commercial facility able to make biofuel for less than $200 a barrel.

  10. Revolutionary new science makes possible a 4 step program that can dramatically improve the economy and decrease the need to burn fossil fuel. We can create vehicles that need no oil or gas. More advanced models can pay for themselves. The urgent question is: How fast will development be completed and mass production begin?

    Step 1: Cut the cord on a plug-in hybrid
    Chava’s Magnetic generators – MagGen™ – will initially make it possible to cut the cord on a plug-in hybrid – so it will no longer need to plug-in. Many years of research and development indicate that with accelerated development, one kilowatt magnetic generators could be ready for production during 2010. A reasonable assumption is that these will be solid-state devices – with an initial volume of perhaps 300 cubic inches. Visualize a box 5” x 5” x 12”. Two of these will provide as much power as is available from a 120 volt socket. Later, the volume can be expected to shrink. This event will herald the end of the need for fuel.
    These same MagGen Modules can, of course, be used as emergency generators – or combined to power a home, a business, or an industrial plant.
    Until a MagGen is validated by independent laboratories, anyone trained in science or engineering will doubt such technology is possible. However, once validation is achieved – and the cord cut on a plug-in hybrid, it will be obvious that new science and new technology exists that can dramatically alter many existing assumptions about energy.

    Step 2: Replace the batteries in an electric car
    The Achilles heel of the electric car is the battery. While there are currently efforts to improve the chemistry, or to shift to ultracapacitors, recharging remains a huge and expensive problem for purely electric vehicles.
    Once Chava’s MagGen is in large scale production it is expected to replace batteries and ultracapacitors of many sizes. When that becomes possible, electric cars will need no outside recharge. Even better, cooperating utilities will be able to turn future cars, trucks and buses, into power plants when parked.

  11. Step 3: SPICE™, a Self Powered Internal Combustion Engine
    Chava’s Self Powered Internal Combustion Engine – SPICE, which will be designed to power a hybrid, will need no fossil fuel. The SPICE will be powered by fractional Hydrogen.
    Recent work at Rowan University provided the first independent experimental evidence that fractional Hydrogen has practical energy conversion applications. The Rowan experiments can readily be repeated by any well equipped laboratory. They undoubtedly soon will be.
    Hydrogen is the simplest atom: one electron revolving around one proton. Imagine an atom of Hydrogen enlarged so much that the proton is as big as a golf ball and you’d find the circling electron three hundred yards away!
    The late Dr. Robert L. Carroll, a mathematical physicist, stated in his 1976 book, The Eternity Equation, that inverse quantum states would prove important. It has been discovered that Hydrogen’s electron orbit can be made to collapse, becoming a much smaller sphere. A tremendous amount of energy can safely be released without radiation or pollution. Pioneering technology, by Randell Mills and the late Arie de Geus, releases energy as the electrons of Hydrogen drop to lower base orbits around each atom's nucleus, corresponding to fractional quantum numbers. Ronald Bourgoin, once a graduate student of Carroll’s, showed the general wave equation predicts the 137 inverse quantum levels claimed.
    A huge amount of Hydrogen is stored in water. The oceans contain 8 million trillion barrels of water. Think about the implications: Even without nuclear options, one barrel of water can yield as much energy as hundreds of barrels of oil – just by making clever use of fractional Hydrogen.
    A SPICE is an evolution of successful experimental work done thirty years ago. Once validated, it can be used in automotive applications – employing a modified reciprocating engine.
    En-route to that objective, which appears it will prove practical, related technology is likely to sharply improve fuel mileage – and lends itself to a retrofit program for existing vehicles.

    Step 4: Vehicles become power plants – and can pay for themselves!
    Vehicle to Grid (V2G) power, where local utilities purchase electricity from parked plug-in hybrid automobiles by means of a two-way plug, is the subject of pilot projects in California, Colorado, Delaware, Denmark and Australia. The batteries are recharged conventionally, but when the utility wishes to purchase power, the plug reverses direction and the car supplies up to 25 kW to the grid. It has been estimated that car owners might eventually earn up to $4,000 per year.
    Since a MagGen or a SPICE can run when the vehicle is parked, owners can look forward to future systems that will wirelessly transmit up to 150kW to the utility. This has been called Super V2G.
    When a car with a hybrid SPICE is parked, the engine can continue to run and an alternator will supply power to the utility. When so utilized, one gallon of water will have to be added every 1,000 miles. No other fuel is needed.
    Until now, car ownership has been an expense. Payments to car owners driving a hybrid with a SPICE, or powered by MagGen, are likely to be substantial. The cost of many vehicles might be paid for by utilities, as they purchase power. Parked cars become decentralized power plants – a rapid, cost-effective path to a rebirth of the auto industry and the world economy.

    How many jobs will be created by revolutionary technologies that need no fossil fuel or recharge – and lead to cars that can pay for themselves?

  12. "A huge amount of Hydrogen is stored in water…"

    True. But all those hydrogen atoms are chemically bonded to oxygen atoms, and it will always take more energy to break those bonds than is possible to get back by burning the hydrogen.

    But of course, there are always those banks of 9-volt batteries…

  13. The same Rowan University that gave Black Light Power the thumbs up?

    I think Mark should have declared himself as PR for the off the wall groups he is pushing.

  14. I would love for Rentech to succeed but they are just another disruptive technology.

    This is wrong on a couple of points. First, there is nothing wild about what Rentech is doing. They have an operating pilot plant right now that is producing Fischer-Tropsch distillate fuels. FT technology has been around a long time, and we know that it is scalable. The challenge is the costs – especially when biomass is the feedstock.

    If you believe oil prices will tend to be a lot higher in the next few years, they can compete. But that isn’t a disruptive technology. It is a transitional technology that will only be enabled by higher oil prices. No black magic; no major technological breakthroughs required. Just higher oil prices. To be a disruptive technology, they would need to do what they are doing at a much larger scale and for a much cheaper price.

    By RR definition using oil and the ICE is a disruptive technology.

    Oil enabling cheap ICE transportation is the very definition of a disruptive technology. It allowed cheap transportation to the masses, and is still going strong after 100 years.


  15. I think Mark should have declared himself as PR for the off the wall groups he is pushing.

    Not just PR. It's his own free-energy company that he is promoting here.

    I don't have a lot of energy for this. In order to save yourself a lot of time responding, first review the exchange at TOD in which he made the same claims:

    Mark Goldes' Claims Challenged at TOD

    You will see a lot of familiar themes there, such as the suppression of new inventions by the scientific community.

    Mark, when you are driving around in a SPICE-based car, let's talk. Until then, please don't spam me.


  16. Mark Goldes said: "A huge amount of Hydrogen is stored in water. The oceans contain 8 million trillion barrels of water."

    So what? And the ocean has about 40 billion ounces of dissolved gold in it, but no one's going after that — even though it's free for the taking.

    Both your and my body, and all the animals and plants on earth are full of hydrogen atoms too. Why not go after them?

    Just think of all the hydrogen atoms that are in the billions of tons of leaves that fall each autumn. Why are you letting that source of hydrogen just lay there? Untapped?

  17. *Real* disruptive technologies typically start in a small niche, not with a frontal assault on the entrenched technology. For example, the transistor first appeared commercially in portable transistor radios targeted at teenagers, not in high-end audio systems or mainframe computers.

    A very good analysis of the phenomenon was done by Christensen & Raynor in their book, which I review here.

  18. Revival of the auto industry as rapidly as possible without adding fossil fuel consumption is an urgent goal.

    Utilities are aware that most electric car recharging will presently be done by power generated by burning coal.

    Truly disruptive technology is now urgently required.

    When World War II began, the U.S. was faced with an emergency need to build weapons. Ford built the Willow Run factory in Michigan to manufacture bombers (GM now owns, and closed, the plant this past June). Aircraft were built on the longest assembly line in the world, similar to those used to build cars. An aircraft was completed every hour. It took 59 minutes to build a plane with its 100,000 parts from start to finish.

    The first bomber was completed 10 months after Pearl Harbor. 18 months after the Japanese attack, 350,000 people came to Detroit to work in defense plants. At its peak, the plant had 42,331 workers. More than 3,000 were hired on a single day in 1943. Each B-24 contained 100,000 parts, as opposed to the 15,000 needed in a 1940 automobile.
    Chava’s technology is nowhere near as complex. How many jobs will be created by revolutionary technologies that need no fossil fuel or recharge – and lead to cars that can pay for themselves?

  19. Benny Cole wrote: The short window of higher oil prices (2004-2008) led to the GM Volt,

    If only that were true. GM's Bob Lutz gives the credit to Tesla Motors.
    When Lutz first proposed creating an electric car in 2003, the idea "bombed" inside GM, he says. "I got beaten down a number of times." …
    The turning point came when tiny Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley start-up, announced in 2006 that it would produce a speedy electric sports car powered by those same laptop batteries. "That tore it for me," says Lutz. "If some Silicon Valley start-up can solve this equation, no one is going to tell me anymore that it's unfeasible."

    Personally, I blame the California Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate.
    When the the CA ZEV mandate, passed in 1990, first came into effect in 1998, the EV-1, Toyota RAV4 EV and other electric vehicles came on the market. In 2003, because of a law suit (by GM?), CA backed off from the ZEV mandate. GM started crushing EV-1s, and EVs disappeared from the US market.
    A couple of years ago CA started trying to revive the ZEV mandate. The new ZEV mandate was approved in 2008 (with credits for PHEVs) to go into effect in 2012. I believe this 2012 mandate is the only reason why so many car companies are showing off plug-in prototypes. I wonder how many will be offered for sale, as opposed to remaining vaporware. I also wonder if the ZEV mandate will stick this time, or it if will again disappear after a few years along with EVs in the marketplace.

  20. " (at Willow Run) An aircraft was completed every hour. It took 59 minutes to build a plane with its 100,000 parts from start to finish."

    This is wrong. You are confusing cycle time with total process time. If, for example, there were 20 planes on the line at any one time, and one plane is completed every hour, then the total time each plane requires for completion is 20 hours, not one hours.

  21. TOD – missed that one -it was older. I wouldn't have read the story after the first few lines (ZEP) anyway as it became clear it was so much BS.

    You have more patience than I to go through that type of article!

  22. "MagGen" is one of the "free-energy" devices that are going around. Let's be frank: "free-energy" devices that are supposed to breaks laws of physics are nothing more than scams, designed to get money from the scientifically ignorant.

    Mark Goldes is a long time promoter of these scams. One thing is sure, these scams will never produce anything disruptive.

  23. David,

    You are, of course, correct.My mistake.

    However, it was still a remarkable achievement.

    And it demonstrates what can be done when there is a strong perception of urgency.

  24. You have got to be kidding. 18 liters per square meter? At $50/barrel one m^2 of this bio-reactor produces $10 per year worth of oil.

    So, let's assume they did make this incredible break through that multiplies the efficiency of photosynthesis by an order of magnitude.

    Assuming $2/year/m^2 in total operating expense, a 20 year lifespan and 7% cost of capital, this device must be manufactured and installed for $85 per square meter.

    What's an equivalent machine and process that can be manufactured and run within these parameters?

    I think they learned the lesson from the tens of billions of dollars the government is wasting on battery cars and ethanol: you don't need the technology if you can sell the hype.

    George Church is a respected scientist and this approach sounds like it may offer some advantages of algae, but they obviously totally fudged the $50/barrel number.


  25. the reason for being having an upper edge of this disruptive technologies is that the try to make our life comfortable, and we people easily get attracted toeards it studing its side effects…

  26. They ARE overrated.

    20,000 gallons of ethanol OR hydrocarbon. Dead give-away. Photosynthetic processes don't produce ethanol OR another completely different hydrocarbon with such blithe ease.

    20000 gal
    * 75000 btu/gal
    * 3600 J/BTU
    = 5.4E+12 J
    = 5,400,000 MJ
    / 365 days
    = 14,794.52 MJ/day
    1 acre
    * 4046 m²/acre
    = 4046 m²
    = 3.66 MJ/m²/day
    = 126.96 W/sec (8hr day)
    given 960 W (insolation)
    = 13% efficiency

    I don't know if that's goingt to look any good … but 13% photosynthetic efficiency? They're smoking CRACK.

    The most efficient phyto process for converting sunlight to biomass doesn't break 2% … and that's pretty extraordinary.

    There are a few assumptions that would bring down their wild claim, such as 12 hours a day of sunlight, or higher surface insolation constant (but not really, the wikipedia article on insolution posits few places exceeding 7.5 kWh/m²/day in the U.S.)

    All in all, just rubbish.

    If they confused hectares with acres (inexcusible, but marketing types mightn't know the difference), or if they were figuring some solar concentration (not a bad idea, but the heat…)

    Ah, its all rubbish.

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