Google Goes Green With Biofuel Investment

woodchipsThe folks at Google Ventures have been very active in the green venture capital space lately.

Following a $42 million investment in the extreme weather/climate change insurance start-up WeatherBill last month, the venture capital arm of Google is making its first foray into the biofuel space, leading a $20 million dollar investment into CoolPlanet Biofuels, a Camarillo California-based startup that has only been in business for 18 months.

CoolPlanet Biofuels is developing technology to produce fuel from inedible biomass such as wood chips, grass clippings, and crop residue.  But instead of creating large-scale refineries where agricultural waste would need to be shipped to them via expensive, carbon-burning transportation like trucks or trains, CPB plans to use mobile refineries.  These refineries will be packed into tractor trailers and will essentially be refinery plants on wheels, with the ability to move from site to site.  The mobile plant will look something like this.

Still sounds like a fairly typical biofuel company, just with a mobile refinery wrinkle, right?  Not so fast.  When considering their proprietary Biomass Fractinator technology, things get a whole lot more interesting.  CoolPlanet Biofuels plans to develop fuel that will be carbon negative.  How is this possible?

Well, according to their website, their fractionator technology:

“extracts useful hydrocarbons from biomass, leaving behind the excess carbon as a high purity solid. The process generates activated carbon with a very high surface area which will allow it to be used as a soil enhancer similar to "terra preta." By burying this carbon in an appropriate manner, we can greatly enhance soil fertility while sequestering carbon for hundreds of years.”

So, in essence, they will be isolating the carbon where it will become a solid byproduct of the biofuel production process.  They will then take this carbon and bury it into the ground, enhancing the nutrient content of the soil where it’s buried.  The idea is for the soil to resemble the rich and fertile anthropogenic soils found in the Amazon Basin, where local farmers have historically mixed charcoal, bone and manure into nutrient-poor soil for agriculture.

Their website goes on to say:

“In contrast, normal plant decomposition occurs in just a few years, releasing the plant's carbon as CO2 and even more harmful methane gas. Our process yields about the same amount of carbon as gasoline so, if we sequester this carbon as a soil enhancer, or simply bury it as coal, the associated fuel has a N100 Negative Carbon Rating.”

Instead of having the carbon released into atmosphere in gas form as C02 or methane, through this process, the carbon can be contained and buried underground in coal form.

Exciting stuff.  If viable, this is the type of technology that could help remove our dependence on fossil fuel energy sources and actually reverse global carbon emissions.  Obviously, widespread use of this process or others like it might be years away.   But, it’s great to know that it exists.  And with financial backing by the likes of Google and some other major energy players like GE, Conoco Phillips and NRG, there may actually be something to it.

Image Credit:  grendelkhan