The cool of CoolTerra

October 21, 2014 |

coolTerra_on_truck4closeNews from California arrived this month that Cool Planet Energy Systems, a technology company that develops sustainable solutions for energy, food and water, has unveiled its first commercial-scale production facility for its CoolTerra soil amendment. The new manufacturing facility is located in Camarillo, California.

“This is an important step for our company, and we believe for the agriculture industry more broadly,” said Howard Janzen, President and CEO of Cool Planet. “We have developed a technologically-advanced soil amendment that enables farmers and growers to increase their crop yields with the same watering levels, and in drought conditions under water restrictions, to maintain overall production levels.”

The Digest took the opportunity to get caught up with Rick Wilson, who is heading up Cool Planet’s CoolTerra business. He’s well remembered in the space from his time as CEO of Cobalt Technologies, formerly Cobalt Biofuels — and one of the first CEOs to definitely point a technology towards renewable chemicals, as opposed to fuels, by posing the question “Why make a $3 fuel when you can make a $5 chemical?”

This week, we spoke about  CoolTerra — the soil amendment product that is expected to substantially boost the economics and environmental attributes of renewable gasoline from Cool Planet.

The CoolTerra story

“2 years ago, after I had left Cobalt and relocated to Southern California” Wilson told the Digest, ” I was active on the NREL advisory board, and there had been work on pyrolysis, and I thought pyrolysis had a legitimate t chance, but one of the biggest challenges was the second carbon stream.”

In fast pyrolysis, there generally are three streams — a gas stream that can be burned for power, a liquid bio-oil, and a residual black carbon-rich product generally known as bio-char. Elsewhere in the Digets today we look at the challenges and opportunities with bio-oil — but one of the applications that has been tried for years with biochar is as a soil amendment, given that it is somewhat related to terra prete, a charcoal-like product used by natives for years to add carbon to the poor soils of the Amazon region.

“There have been lots of failed attempts,” said Wilson. “In many of them, biochar actually did a good job of killing everything in a given radius, instead of making plants stronger.”

“Then one time I went to Yosemite, to a forest fire site, and I realized that there was a dramatic impact on the soil. At first, the pyrolized trees — they were almost charcoaled in some cases, and there was this dramatic change. At first, everything died, as if the soil chemistry had been completey changed, but then the forest took off like crazy.”

“So I thought there really could be some impact — we really could address this carbon opportunity. So, we went about the job of improving biochar.”

What is it?

Indeed, Wilson and CoolPlanet don’t like the use of the word biochar” in conjunction with their product.”Biochar is what we start with, CoolTerra is what we produce,” he said, with the helpful tones of a teacher pointing out the difference between corn and ethanol.

The process. “It’s organic. We are filing for patents, so I don’t want to say too much, but there is water and vinegar in the process process. We fix the pH problem that biochar has, and get rid of the toxins. Plus, we have developed application processes. The overall impact dramatically improves the performance.”

CoolPlanet describes CoolTerra as a “highly porous soil enhancer engineered to retain water and fertilizer for improving soil health and productivity. For farmers and growers in the Western U.S. and elsewhere, the commercially available amendment gives them the ability to maintain or improve their crop yield. Reducing fertilizer use also mitigates water pollution from farm runoff.

Performance

In a recent field trial testing the effectiveness of CoolTerra on high-value strawberry crops, CoolTerra increased production by 56 percent with normal watering levels and with 40 percent less fertilizer. In recent turf grass trials with a municipality, a one-time permanent application of CoolTerra enabled water use to be cut in half, while improving the overall appearance of the lawns.

“While untreated soil allows water and nutrients to evaporate or leach into the ground, away from the root zone of plants, CoolTerra™ retains water and nutrients in the root zone due to its engineered properties.”

“It’s a water story,” Wilson adds, “reducing water needs by half in some applications.”

Reduce water by half? There must be dozens of applications just in the California market alone, which is battling a severe drought .

“There are a range of applications,” Wilson says. “There’s turfgrass, for one. CoolTerra was applied during an aeration and was swept into plug holes. It cut water use by half in a Thousand Oaks trial, and a golf course averages 4 acre feet of water for the irrigated acres, each year.”

What about commodity farming applications?

“In commodity farming, there are opportunities where, with precision application where it can be applied at the time of seeding, and can reduce fertilizer use by 2/3.”

How much is applied per acre?

“It can vary depending on the application. It could be as much as 2 tons per acre at the high end, for example making strawberries nore drought-resistant, or as low as 11 kilograms per acre have been trialled for wheat.”

So, we asked Wilson about markets beyond the California HQ for CoolTerra. What about Louisiana, for example, where CoolPlanet’s first commercial facility is under development?

“Louisiana? We’re still working on understanding that market, but keep in mind that it costs typically $25-$40 per ton for transit from Louisiana to the California market.”

What if results in commercial everyday use do not mirror what has been seen in trials, as has been known to happen in agriculture?

“Products that can have impacts at this level are going to have big margins because of the value for growers. So, even if it has set backs in performance with a given application at commercial-scale, there are going to remain big opportunities from a market development point of view.”

CoolPlant CEO Howard Janzen notes, “In addition to the results we’ve seen in drought-stricken California, we’ve also begun trialling CoolTerra™ in the Middle East to enhance crop yields in the arid desert climate,” said Janzen. ”And we’re actively exploring other international market opportunities.

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