California based Cool Planet Energy has just announced almost $30 million in funding toward a goal of $100 million to build its first commercial facility for producing low cost biofuel that is not just carbon neutral, it’s carbon negative. Yes, that’s what Cool Planet has promised: it will produce bio-gasoline at a cost of under $1.50 per gallon without government subsidy, along with a biochar coproduct that will increase crop yields while capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Sounds good, right? Well, let’s take a look and see what Cool Planet’s biofuel venture is all about.
Cool Planet Energy’s Plan For Biofuel
We first caught up with Cool Planet Energy just last fall, when the company announced that its pilot facility scale facility in Camarillo had passed muster, producing drop-in biofuel that is chemically identical to gasoline.
The process is focused on miscanthus but can also work on other woody biomass including agricultural waste.
Setting aside the carbon-negative claim for now, Cool Planet’s system combines a number of carbon-reducing elements that are common to next-generation biofuel strategies.
That includes using non-food feedstocks including hardy perennials like miscanthus, and relying on feedstocks that require little preparation prior to processing. That would be miscanthus again, which can be air-dried in the field to reduce moisture content to the optimal level.
Cool Planet has also compared its refining process to a “kitchen stovetop” in terms of its relatively low operating temperature and pressure.
One interesting aspect of Cool Planet’s strategy is its focus on commercializing modular, transportable micro-biorefineries which can be located at or near biofuel croplands, which should help reduce carbon emissions related to feedstock transportation.
The prefabricated micro-refinery approach is also the key to the system’s cost-competitiveness, as described by Cool Planet President and CEO Howard Janzen:
“Each micro-refinery is one hundred times smaller than a typical oil refinery and can produce 10 million gallons of fuel per year; this puts us in the running to compete with oil at $50 a barrel without any government mandates or subsidies.”
An Integrated System For Carbon-Negative Biofuel
All of the above is well and good in terms of producing renewable fuel with a lower carbon footprint than petroleum, but Cool Planet has its sights set higher, into carbon-negative territory.
The key to that goal is the production of biochar during Cool Planet’s refining process. Biochar refers to black carbon produced from biomass (or fossil fuels, too). When burned as fuel it adds carbon back to the atmosphere, but when used as a soil enhancer it captures carbon. As an extra bonus it renders marginal soil more fertile and improves its ability to absorb water, which could mean that biochar would enable more previously non-arable land to be put into production for biofuel crops.
For some additional insights into the process, you can also check out Biofuels Digest’s take on Cool Planet last spring.
So, How Close Is Your Gas Tank To Cool Planet?
It looks like so far, so good. Last fall, the company announced that Google tested a blend of Cool Planet biofuel with conventional fuel on its GRide “taxi” at the company’s Mountain View, CA campus for almost 2,500 miles, and the vehicle succeeded in meeting California’s 2020 Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
The GRide blend of 5% Cool Planet, 95% conventional gasoline also achieved virtually the same mileage as the control car under the campus’s stop-and-go conditions.
Also of interest is the inclusion of both BP and ConocoPhillips in Cool Planet’s list of partners, considering that another key player in the petroleum industry, ExxonMobil, appears to be washing its hands of the next-generation biofuel business.
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