A123, Joule Forge Ahead in Wind Energy Storage and Biofuels

Busy day for a couple of well-known cleantech companies around Boston. One public company has signed a big deal in China, while the other, an ambitious upstart, is carefully protecting its intellectual property as it heads toward large-scale commercialization.

—A123 Systems (NASDAQ: AONE), the Waltham, MA-based maker of lithium ion batteries, said today it has won a contract with China’s Dongfang Electric, a large manufacturer of wind turbines and power equipment. A123 will provide an energy storage system for Dongfang’s manufacturing facility in Hangzhou by the end of this year. Financial terms weren’t given. If all goes well, this will be A123’s first storage system installed in China.

A report in CNET today has more context on the deal: A123’s battery bank will be attached to a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine and diesel generator to test how well the batteries can smooth out the dips in wind energy production. A123 has car battery manufacturing facilities in China, but no grid storage systems there yet, the report says.

—Joule Unlimited, the Cambridge, MA-based biofuels startup, said today it has been awarded a pair of U.S. patents that cover its method for producing ethanol at high volumes and high efficiencies. The method involves genetically engineering “photosynthetic bacteria”—microorganisms that convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into ethanol without fermenting sugars from cellulose or other types of biomass. The patents (#7,981,647 and #7,968,321), which were granted in the past month, cover various enzymatic mechanisms that Joule has engineered into cells to maximize their ethanol productivity.

Joule has received plenty of media attention since it started in 2007. The company is also applying its method to produce energy in the form of diesel fuel, which could power trucks and planes. Joule has previously been awarded patents in the area of diesel production. The overarching idea is to replace fossil fuels, but most biofuels makers have found “they can’t compete on a cost basis,” said Joule senior vice president Troy Campione, on a panel at our XSITE conference last month. Joule, of course, believes it is different.

The company has a pilot plant in Texas that has been producing ethanol and is slated to start producing diesel later this year. Joule says it has also signed a lease for land in New Mexico on which it is building a demonstration-scale plant that will begin operations next year.

While the new patents should help distance Joule from some of its competitors, they don’t necessarily get the company to commercialization any faster. George Church, the Harvard geneticist (and chairman of Joule’s technical advisory board), was quoted in the New York Times in March saying, “It’s not a totally obvious organism and they’ve changed it pretty radically, so it’s not clear they can protect everything by patents.”

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