What are Google, BP, Conoco, and GE investing? Is 3,000 gallons per acre of renewable gasoline possible?
In the past few weeks, news has begun to circulate around the industry – and expanded by Twitter and other social media to encompass a fair chunk of planet Earth – that Cool Planet Biofuels achieved 4,000 gallons per acre yields for production of renewable gasoline, and are projecting 3,000 gallons per acre based on what they believe are sustainable feedstock yields. The feedstock is giant miscanthus of the Freedom type, licensed by Repreve Renewables from cultivars developed at Brain Baldwin’s lab at Mississippi State University.
How cool is that? Cool Planet is rocking everyone’s bells.
Of course, the flip-side question from so many is – how real is that?
You can’t blame the skeptics. Biofuels and low-carbon fuels observers have made as many trips down the aisle as Mickey Rooney, with as many disappointments.
To date, most of the buzz about Cool Planet has generally focused on its astonishing array of investors – Google, BP, GE, ConocoPhillips, Constellation Energy and NRG, among them. The news from Cool Planet gives the broader audience a first look at the type of results that could previously be found only under NDA, or teased out from the US patent application database (which rarely has the latest breakthroughs under development in the lab).
In fact, Cool Planet passes through, with flying colors, the Digest’s first test for signs of hype. Generally, we look for the roster of brand name investors to be equal to, or greater than, the number of press releases touting the technology. One press release, five brand-name investors, or a score of 0.17 – excellent news. Some companies have ratios in the 50.00+ range – although, let’s face it, companies with public shareholder bases are generally forced into it.
The second test for signs of hype? Claims that are unaccompanied by third-party validations of the data, where the result is greater than previously known outcomes from competing developers.
Algae, for example, has been a platform where the yield claims have ranged from the type of numbers given by serious scientists, building carefully on the proved reported in peer-reviewed literature, to something more reminiscent of lunatics chanting under the influence of peyote and a full moon.
The yield claim
But let’s look at the yield claim.
Cool Planet’s 4,000 gallon per acre claims appear – although the company, citing biomass yield confidentiality owed to Repreve Renewables, doesn’t offer specific number – to be based on the 25 ton per acre yields that Repreve cites in its website. An article on the Repreve/Cool Planet relationship suggested that, to date, Cool Planet has been testing samples from Repreve, rather than engaging itself in cultivation trials.
Repreve, itself, suggests up to 3,250 gallons per acre for its feedstock based on conversions of 130 gallons per ton of miscanthus biomass – and Cool Planet’s 4,000 gallon per acre claim is 23 percent north of that.
So here are the numbers. A ton of miscanthus contains 940 pounds of carbon, a gallon of gasoline contains 5.2 pounds of carbon – so theoretical maximum is around 180 gallons of gasoline from a ton of miscanthus. 160 gallons of gasoline? That’s 88 percent of theoretical – so, you need to access all of the carbon, and make no CO2 along the way.
The Cool Planet system
That’s what Cool Planet says it has come up with. It’s system is based on the principles of pyrolysis but is not your Dad’s pyro system – not by a long shot.
For those less familiar with pyrolysis, think of cooking dinner on a stove. When you heat up food biomass in a skillet, you are driving off the water and beginning to dehydrolize the biomass – in short, taking off some hydrogen and a lot of oxygen – and it browns and blackens as the carbon ratio comes up and the chemistry begins to change.
At higher temperatures and lower pressures, biomass is converted to a soup of volatile gases which, if cooled, would have thousands of different molecules that, when cooled down to liquid form, continue to react with each other – hence, why pyro oils have struggled with stability. You start with one soup, then you get another as all the reactions take place. The larger the chamber, the more unpredictable reactions – hence why pyrolysis systems have had tough issues scaling results from bench to commercial scale.
The Cool Planet idea is essentially one of sequestration. Instead of running the biomass over one magic catalyst in a fluidized bed reactor, and then trying to do something with the resulting pyro oil, Cool Planet’s systems is based on a series of reactions.
Heat biomass into a gas, pass over a catalyst, cool into a soup of liquid molecules, pull off the ones you need (e.g. the gasoline-range molecules); then repeat the process numerous times, with different temperatures and pressures at each reactor “station” and unique catalysts, until you have converted all the volatile gases into gasoline-range molecules. You are left with a residual bio-char, which can be used as a soil enhancement material to boost biomass yields.
“The biomass fractioner is fundamentally different than flash pyrolysis, Cool Planet CEO Mike Cheiky told the Digest, “because we fundamentally deconstruct biomass in an orderly fashion, to preserve as much bond energy as possible. By decomposing in orderly process, we dig deeper into the fragments, and this gives us the freedom to prices the carbon in any way we want.
A mission, not a process
The amount of bio-char depends on the goal of your system – you can optimize to produce a lot of gasoline and a few percentage points of char, or optimize for bio-char should say, your goal be soil enhancement and carbon sequestration. The gallons per acre figures cited by Cool Planet are based on maximizing for fuel.
“We’re a fundamentally different than typical biofuels company,” Cheiky says. “We are a sustainable energy rather than biofuel company. The typical pathway is to come up with a process in the lab, then search for a problem to solve. In our case, we first identified the problem. It just happens that the most attractive vehicle is negative carbon fuel.
He pauses, then adds: “We have a very extensive lab capabilities – and multiple processes . I don’t want to fixate on one process. What we are discussing today is just one of many process pathways, and we are not wed to any specific way; we have the flexibility to do that. In your normal VC set up, if your technology doesn’t work, you’re done and they sell off the parts – think of Range Fuels as an example. We are on a mission, not about a process.”
The secret sauce? No loss of carbon in a CO2 byproduct. It’s something ZeaChem has emphasized in its high-yield cellulosic biomass process, as well.
“Our low energy approach can convert all the biomass carbon fuel, says Cheiky. “I am amazed; it was kind of an accident in the lab that we found this relatively low energy pathway to convert all the carbon to fuel – and produce no CO2 in our reactions.
“Biochar is usually not much more than a powerful herbicide, usually has too many hydrocarbons or hydrophobic elements that drive off water. Our biochar has a high surface area, high purity, and is devoid of tars. It’s unique in that we keep some of the original cellular structure, we partially open cell walls. So the BET is in the 600m2 per gram range, making it highly activated carbon.”(Note, activated carbon manufacturers generally seek ratios on the 500 m2 per gram range).
So, what’s the scale up plan? Cool Planet says that it intends to mass produce refining equipment, are built in modules on moveable skids, a flexible modular open architecture system, which makes the roll-out faster and field-upgradable.
Cool Planet is on its third generation design now, and expects to have its first mass producible plant open in the September period, producing what it calls 400,000 gallon per year sub-scale systems, and is expecting a fourth generation design by Spring 2013.
The company says it will have a very low CAPEX system, commencing with its fourth-gen design available in 2013, which it projects will have a CAPEX of $2 per installed gallon of capacity, and will move down in future releases. The company says that, based on the yields it is achieving – and depending on local labor costs – it expects its 40 million gallon reference industrial-scale plant to produce renewable gasoline at $1.00-$1.15 per gallon, and based on biomass market prices in the 60 cents per gallon range.
Village scale concept
In partnership with Google.org, the company is supporting the development of village-scale units that can provide community fuel and bio-char for soil amendment, but it says “the village parameters will be set by future studies, and will be based on partnership with Google.org in terms of the plans to deploy such units around the world.” In short, Cool Planet will make systems to support small-scale deployments at the village scale, but will not build, own and operate them.
The bottom line
It’s Def tech, that’s for sure. For general coolness of claim, its def con 2.
Transformative? We gotta wait a year. Sorry, cats.
Its not hard to see why companies are excited about investing in Cool Planet. With operating costs of $1.00 to $1.15 per gallon, and adding another 13 cents or so for the capital costs (amortized over 15 years) – well, you get the picture. It’s drop-in, renewable gasoline, in prospect, for about 50 percent less than you can currently buy unrefined crude oil.
We don’t have long to wait, Digesterati.
By September 2012, there’s a third-gen system due, and by spring of next year, the commercially-deployable fourth-gen system. The systems can work with a wide variety of biomass, unlike enzymatic systems, it is not optimized for a specific feedstock. So, one needn’t wait for miscanthus to appear at scale. Of course – higher cost biomass means higher cost fuel.
But we know that BP – which has invested in Cool Planet, is developing massive capabilities to deliver miscanthus at scale, both through its grower development efforts in Louisiana and Texas and through its work with, and investments in, Mendel Biotechnologies. Currently, that miscanthus is slated to support a 72 million gallon BP cellulosic ethanol facility planned for the southeast for 2017. But it wouldn’t be impossible to imagine BP deploying this system if scale-up proves out the promise of the technology.
Earlier in our series
In Part I, “I Want a New Bug,” we looked at the formation of Lygos, and the magic bugs, coming primarily out of the Keasling Lab at Berkeley and JBEI, that produce biofuels and renewable chemicals directly from sugar and cellulose without using an enzymatic process.
In Part II, “Chain, Chain, Chain – Chain of Fuels,” we looked at the latest on consolidated bioprocessing, in which a single organism both produced a fermentable sugar, and then ferments it; and we also look at the timelines and costs associated with producing enzymes from the target biomass itself. Specifically, we’ll highlight the latest on Mascoma and Sud-Chemie.
Elsewhere, rocking the bells: (Yes, bio-homies: the actual LL Cool J rocks the bells, here).