My Italian-born mother used to tell me how you cook food is just as important as the ingredients you are using to give it its flavor. This idea hasn’t been lost on California based Cool Planet Energy Systems who is basically cooking up biomass to produce biochar and carbon negative fuel. Yes carbon negative! Considering Cool Planet just raised $30 million to build its first production facility, even world-renowned celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay would likely approve how the company is cooking up biomass to remove atmospheric CO2.
For frequent followers of this blog (if you’re not following, what are you waiting for?), you know I have been pounding the table in recent weeks on the need to explore advanced energy solutions that do not require as much water. Water is finite yet we continue to use hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to cool power plants or in some cases even millions to fracture (a.k.a. frack) a gas well multiple times. Therefore the time is now to for innovative technology to advance waterless or less water dependent forms of energy. With that said, Cool Planet’s mechanical/chemical process can make biomass doubly attractive since it can serve two major markets (agriculture and energy).
You may know biochar, the solid material resulting from the carbonization of non-food biomass such as wood chips, algae and corn cobs, has been used for agricultural purposes for thousands of years. It can be a very good soil enhancer for more noticeable plant growth since it is highly porous and can help retain nutrients and water. This means it can boost crop yields while using 30% less water. So while Cool Planet can create biochar, which benefits the agriculture sector by creating more fertile soil, it also stores CO2 for hundreds of years. The company is also simultaneously converting biomass into cost-effective hydrocarbon fuel for commercial consumption through what is called a “biomass fractionator”, a technological breakthrough Cool Planet has 2 U.S. patents on. The creation of both biochar and gasoline essentially brings the carbon negative fuel cycle into a complete circle.
I believe Cool Planet is sitting in a very enviable position considering the most recent World Energy Outlook Special Report points to the need for significant near-term emissions reductions to keep the 2 °C target alive for 2020 global carbon targets. That means removing CO2 from waste, storing it and also making fuel from biomass makes going carbon negative much more appealing than simply going carbon neutral (see image below from Cool Planet).
Biomass can help U.S. become energy independent and help lower global carbon footprint
Back in 2010, the Tri-City Herald reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had estimated the U.S. could replace 1.9 billion barrels of imported oil with bio-oil if we were to pyrolyze 1.3 billion tons of various forms of biomass annually. That figure would equate to ~28% of the 6.87 billion barrels of oil consumed by the U.S. using 2011 data. The 1.9 billion barrels would also represent a 69% reduction in need for foreign oil using the 40% imported petroleum figure seen in 2012. So saying biomass can help the U.S. become energy independent is not a false statement. This makes Cool Planet’s low-cost clean renewable fuel even more appealing.
On top of the energy independence argument, the U.S. could basically sequester a whopping 153 million tons of carbon annually by adding biochar to soils according to the above cited article. Based on my calculations, that would be comparable to just ~3 months of energy-related CO2 emissions here in the U.S. if we were to continue to emit ~5.3 billion tons per year from energy (figure seen in 2012). However, the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) is forecasting that biochar sequestration can grow sharply in years to come and it can offset CO2 emissions by 1 billion tons globally by 2050. Removing 1 billion tons is like erasing Japan’s CO2 output or Germany plus Italy’s CO2 total right off the map.
Cool Planet Microrefineries
Beyond the potential for biochar, which is robust in its own right, I’m actually even more intrigued that Cool Planet can set-up what could essentially be considered a “microrefinery”. The company can position these microrefineries in close proximity to biomass fields while also putting biomass waste to better use. This should help Cool Planet produce more cost-effective fuel since you are cutting transportation costs to haul biomass to the microrefinery site which is ~100 times smaller than present-day oil refineries. According to the company’s website, Cool Planet can be competitive without any government subsidies even if crude oil dropped to $50 per barrel. Wow! That would be another blow to the refiners (see – Are refiners quietly being put on notice by airlines?).
Cool Planet argues that its high-octane bio-gasoline does not hurt engines or require any upgrades to existing distribution systems. If that is truly the case, this company has a very bright future. Then again that’s likely the reason the California based company is backed some high-profile investors, including General Electric, Google Ventures, NRG, Exelon, ConocoPhillips and BP plc.
To get the latest Blue Phoenix thoughts on advanced energy and cleanweb solutions, register here to get more stories like this direct to your inbox.