Basically, all you gotta do is you put your HeliocultureTM into your scalable SolarConverterTM and, voila, out comes your SolarFuelTM liquid energy!

Or at least that’s the gist of the cryptic, jargon-laced press release that Joule Biotechnologies issued this morning promising a “game-changing” alternative-energy solution that “requires no agricultural land or fresh water” to produce “more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually.”

“A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels” declared Technology Review, which—like most of the stories published today—was absent information allowing an independent assessment of its feasibility. Even more puzzling was the company’s statement that Flagship Ventures has invested “substantially less than $50 million.”

Joule, founded in 2007, claims to “leverage highly engineered photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion of sunlight and CO2” inside a transparent bioreactor filled with brackish water. These mysterious organisms do not need to be harvested and processed but instead continuously secrete the fuels. It sounds a lot like the recent ExxonMobil-Synthetic Genomics algae biofuel initiative, except Joule President and CEO Bill Sims told the Boston Globe their organism is definitely not algae and no other company is using it. "If I tell you what the organism is, I’m inviting everyone else to take part in a transformational, evolutionary, game-changing technology," he said.

A range of organisms beyond plants, including the protist Euglena and an odd sea slug, have the ability to photosynthesize, but few can grow as fast as algae or cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae).

One striking possibility is that Joule’s organism is an aquatic plant.

Todd Michael, a plant ecologist at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who has been studying the potential of freshwater duckweed to be used as a biofuel was surprised by the new announcement. His team speculates that Joule’s organism is the duckweed Wolffia, sometimes called watermeal. The genus includes the smallest flowering plants on Earth. “I think pursuing every single bioenergy option is a good strategy,” he says.

Joule's ambitious plans are to start building a pilot plant in 2010 and a commercial-scale plant by early 2012.

Image of watermeal courtesy Christian Fischer via Wikimedia Foundation