Startup creates gasoline substitute from wood chips plus salable byproduct

Source: Jennifer Huizen, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Cool Planet Energy Systems, a company offering a unique carbon-neutral biofuel, had a big week last week.

Not only did the company receive a loan guarantee of $91 million from the Department of Agriculture to finish construction on its first commercial-scale refinery in the Port of Alexandria, La., but it also opened the first major production facility for the byproduct of its biofuel, CoolTerra, a soil enhancer, in Camarillo, Calif.

Since 2011, the company has gained a variety of backers — Google Ventures, General Electric Co., ConocoPhillips Co. and BP PLC, just to name a few — in its endeavor to produce a blend stock that would dramatically differ from other market competitors like ethanol.

Cool Planet’s biofuel, generated from the vapors of thermo-mechanically treated wood chips, is a direct drop-in product, meaning it can be burned as a fuel without additional processing. Also, by transforming the residual carbon from its biofuel into a soil enhancer, much of the atmospheric carbon initially consumed by the plant stock during growth is buried in the soil, shrinking the fuel’s carbon footprint close to zero.

Wes Bolsen, director of strategic partnerships for Cool Planet, said his company’s success is based on taking a long-known process and rejuvenating it.

“Many of our methods have been known of and used for thousands of years; we just fine-tuned things,” he said. “As a result, we have a fuel product similar to gasoline ready to go straight into vehicles and another product that helps save water, nutrients, reduces the use of fertilizers and helps prevent runoff. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Going to commercial volumes next year

The plant in Louisiana will be a larger replicate of Cool Planet’s existing facilitates in California, ramping up production to reach an estimated 10 million gallons per year of the biofuel upon completion in 2016. This scale of production is reliant on location, said Rick Wilson, vice president of strategic relationships for Cool Planet.

“Louisiana has the wood pellets industry we need, and there are 10 refineries close by that could use our product, reducing the carbon used for transportation, and rail cars to move the residual product to California for treatment,” he said.

These elements of the project highlight Cool Planet’s core mission, to alleviate the environmental consequences of the world’s need for energy, food and water. These goals cannot all be addressed in the fuel market overnight but must be brought on by small-scale, fast-paced, locally bound development, Wilson explained.

Though its Alexandria plant will help launch the product into the marketplace on a supply level, the company envisions a future with many individually run plants across the country. Its facilities are on average one-hundredth the size of traditional oil refineries, within 20 to 40 miles of biomass stock, and are fairly bare-bones, allowing lower construction and startup costs. Bolsen added that the simplicity of the company’s method means it can also be easily scaled.

He explained that the process begins when wood chips are exposed to 350 to 550 degrees Celsius under pressure. Under these conditions, the chips begin to release vapors rich in hydrocarbons, which by using proprietary catalysts can be converted into fuel to be later blended with gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

“All we really added to this process is our unique catalysts and the resulting treatment of the remnants,” Bolsen said.

Wilson said this treatment allowed the byproduct, called biochar, to go from a product that takes years to form to a product that can quickly help soil hold triple the water of normal soil. It also allows the biofuel production process to become carbon-neutral.

“We basically just fixed the inherent flaws of normal biochar that no one else had taken the time to,” said Wilson, who said that as a result, Cool Planet had to build an industry for its product, called CoolTerra. “Though it took time, it was well worth the effort,” he said.

Helping lawns and vineyards

To produce CoolTerra, the charcoal-like remnants from biofuel production are rapidly aged, altering their surface properties to make them better at retaining water and nutrients, as well as reducing elements that can be toxic to plants. Microbes and root-symbiotic fungi are then woven into the porous chips, furthering the productivity potential of the mixture.

“CoolTerra is most easily described as a carbon-rich sponge holding everything the plant needs right where it needs it,” Bolsen said

The company has already done extensive test trials on CoolTerra’s ability to enhance plant biomass in a variety of crops, boosting lettuce mass 75 percent and fruit weight by 20 percent in apple trees. Placed around plant roots, CoolTerra has proved capable of reducing fertilizer usage by 20 percent without a drop in productivity and offers the potential of lowering water usage overall, as more of what is applied remains biologically available.

“It has also been aerated into turf lawns, cutting water usage in half, drawing support from municipalities with commitments to decrease resource usage who can absorb the cost of transition in about a year,” Wilson said.

While the product is a one-time application in lawns, farmers can apply it annually for years until their soil reaches an ideal composition, near 20 percent, Wilson explained.

Wilson added that this quality of the product is already being exploited by vineyards in California, which have been able to reclaim fallow land using its biochar, and is gaining interest from consumers in regions of the world like the Middle East with low soil moisture.

“If CoolTerra can turn unproductive land into places that can grow food,” Wilson said, “that would be just another benefit our whole process offers to a planet expanding its needs under decreasing resources.”

A 5% solution

Currently, Cool Planet aims to mix its biofuel with traditional gasoline for a 5 percent blend because it is most cost-efficient, Wilson said, though this doesn’t mean the product couldn’t someday be used alone. This timeline is also helpful for U.S. EPA, he added, which needs the time to check that the product is meeting emission standards among other criteria.

“Getting 5 percent of our product in the cars of people across the U.S. is a big enough goal for right now,” he said.

While CoolTerra remains only commercially for sale in California and Colorado, Cool Planet takes online orders and its new plant in Camarillo could open up larger markets.

All of this, Wilson said, has made him, an employee of BP for the better half of two decades, extremely optimistic for the future of expanding the energy market in a new way.

“We’re in the right place, at the right time, doing something positive for the environment,” Wilson said. “I’m 55 years old, and for the first time I can say I truly feel satisfied with what I’m doing.”