Google testing 'carbon-negative' biofuel

Google testing 'carbon-negative' biofuel

Summary: Technology from Cool Planet Energy Systems converts non-food biomass substances like wood chips and energy crops into high-octane gasoline.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

Given Google's investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicles, it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the company is testing a new system from Cool Planet Energy Systems that is being pitched as a way of producing high-octane gasoline through a carbon-negative production process.

Cool Planet's biofuel is made through a thermal processe that uses non-food biomass including wood chips, agricultural waste, or energy crops such as giant miscanthus or switch grass. Once the feedstock is converted into hydrocarbons, it goes through a catalytic conversion process.

The whole process happens in microrefineries that are far smaller than typical facilities. The byproducts, such as activated carbon (biochar) can be used as soil enhancers.

"By mass-producing mobile, pre-fabricated micro-refineries that are easily transportable to the biomass source, we significantly reduce costs of feedstock transportation, which maximizes our overall capital efficiency," said Howard Janzen, president and CEO of Cool Planet Energy Systems. "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."

The result, according to Cool Planet, is a high-octane gasoline that is compatible with existing automobiles and with existing distribution systems. What's more, the company says that its production method has a carbon footprint that is 150 percent smaller than any other biomass-to-fuel method.

Cool Planet is testing its technology at both its own headquarters in Camarillo, Calif., and at Google's home base in Mountain View, Calif. The Google test car, called the GRide, has already used the biofuel fuel to travel more than 2,400 miles -- meeting California's low carbon fuel standard eight years before schedule, according to Cool Planet.

In the Google test, the car using the Cool Planet biofuel was virtually identical in emissions testing to the control vehicle. The big pitch by Cool Planet is the impact on fuel production.

More tests are planned in Ventura County, California, as well as with another investor fleet.

Speaking of which, it probably won't surprise you to hear that Google Ventures is one of Cool Planet's financial backers along with General Electric, BP, ConocoPhillips, NRG and the Constellation Energy division of Exelon.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • maybe incremental progress

    Digging through the hyperbole on the Cool Planet website, I surmise this is fast pyrolysis combined with some additional catalysis. Fast pyrolysis isn't new, but mobile units are beginning to come to market (e.g. Agri-Therm). Research is underway on the agricultural value of biochar. The output of fast pyrolysis can be an aqueous fuel that is suitable for stationary equipment but is not miscible in gasoline. What Cool Planet may offer that is actually new would be the catalytic conversion to transportation fuel. But it is not clear that the carbon footprint is so good after this additional step.