Google Tests On-Site Biofuel Production

Cool Planet successfuly tests low cost biofuelThe company Cool Planet Energy Systems has an intriguing idea about biofuel: instead of churning out fuel from large, central refineries, Cool Planet would rather manufacture modular, shippable micro-biorefineries and sell them to you for on-site biofuel production. According to Cool Planet, the system can produce biofuel for only $1.50 per gallon.

According to Cool Planet, Google has been testing its micro-biorefinery by using a blend of 5 percent biofuel and 95 percent gasoline on a campus vehicle at its Mountain View, CA headquarters.

So far, the vehicle has traveled more than 2,400 miles while meeting California’s new low carbon fuel standard, which is not scheduled to go into effect until 2020.

The vehicle, called GRide, has also passed comparative tests for smog and fuel efficiency against a control car running on 100 percent gasoline.

Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the Cool Planet system is at its maximum efficiency for sites that have ready access to local feedstock, which cuts transportation costs cut to a minimum. However, the system also has some additional benefits that could still make it an attractive option.

Beyond low cost biofuel

Of course, an on-site biorefinery is not a viable option for every company with a vehicle fleet. However, depending on the company’s facility there is more to be gained than just biofuel.

One illustration is provided by a system developed by the company Biodico, which is going to install a modular, shippable biorefinery at a U.S. Navy station in California.

Biodico’s system represents a holistic approach to biofuel costs. The price of the liquid fuel is partly offset by reclaiming energy co-generated by the refining process, for use in the naval station’s microgrid. There is also some potential for producing marketable by-products.

Similarly, Cool Planet’s system produces biochar, a soil enhancer that does double duty as a highly effective form of carbon capture. In fact, biochar is so effective at carbon capture that Cool Planet claims it makes its micro-biorefinery a net carbon-negative process.

That give biochar a significant bottom line value whether it is marketed for cash, or donated or used on site to promote a company’s green cred.

Cool Planet biofuel passes the Google test

While the micro-biorefinery could be useful for companies with service and delivery fleets that travel off site, it could also be ideal for use on corporate campuses.

Sustainable biofuel for corporate America

Cool Planet’s system is designed to run on non-food biomass including waste such as wood chips and corn stover (corn stalks, husks and cobs), as well as cultivated non-food biofuel crops like miscanthus and switchgrass.

Since the system can draw on a variety of local feedstocks, it has the potential to be cost-efficient practically anywhere in the U.S

In that regard, it’s no surprise that Cool Planet’s technology has caught Google’s eye, as well as other companies with far-flung operations including General Electric, BP, ConocoPhillips, NRG and Exelon.

The modular, scalable technology also dovetails with a broader trend toward distributed energy production, which the Obama Administration has been encouraging along with the development of non-food feedstocks including waste grease and algae biofuel.

Image: Courtesy of Cool Planet Energy Systems, Inc.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

3 responses

  1. Google has a reputation as not just a repository of information, but as a creator of information. It they are now claiming before the world that Cool Planet biofuels are carbon negative, or even low-carbon, they owe it to the world to back up the statement with verifiable data. They need to reveal the full stoichiometry and mass balance of the biofuel hydrogen and carbon content from source to end-product. They also need to show the enthalpies of each component to reveal where energy is being injected into the process. Without a transparent revelation of the energy flow of this process, these claims can be dismissed as what they most likely are, snake-oil salesman pitches for more perpetual motion in chemistry. The catch-22 that dooms all biomass-biofuel approaches is yield v. energy return on investment (EROI). Without artificial fertilizer, annual natural yields of non-food crops are tiny and hardly cost-effective to support harvesting, let along conversion into commercial quantities of liquid fuel. Artificially fueling plants with ammonia-based fertilizers, and protecting them with herbicides and pesticides, can increase yields six-fold, but the ammonia is made from natural gas and the agrichemicals are made from petroleum feedstock. When all the fossil fuel energy inputs including farm equipment fuel and processing plant energy and transportation fuel and even the enzymes used for advanced processes (made from organic compounds derived from petroleum feedstock) are accounted for, the energy output in the biofuel is far less than the energy input. Biofuels are actually accelerating the use of petroleum fuels and increasing GHG emissions, as well as damaging the environment with agrichemical runoff and irreversible land use change. Making some bio-char on the side does not even touch the up-front carbon and energy debt of cultivated biomass. If the source biomass is uncultivated, than the acreage to support even the tiniest fraction of the 27 quadrillion BTUs of transportation energy the US uses each year is absolutely unrealistic. Corn ethanol, the highest yield fuel crop in the US can produce 500 gallons of fuel per acre per year, but this only equates to 0.315 W/m2 and would require more than 700M acres to replace US gasoline and diesel. What are the hard numbers for Cool Energy’s crop? The world deserves to know if Google is going to make the claim.

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