The Carbon Neutral Pipedream

The innovative folks at CoolPlanet BioFuels are going to help reverse climate change and make a killing doing it.

CoolPlanet BioFuels is a Camarillo, California third generation bio fuels company. Mike Cheiky – president, CEO, and CTO – is a successful serial entrepreneur who’s at it again. He decided to start CoolPlanet in December 2008 and the company has been growing quickly since then. So what do they do? They make carbon negative fuel. So the more you drive, the more CO2 they pull out of the atmosphere.

What follows is a two part article about why I’m excited about CoolPlanet BioFuels. The transcript from my interview with Mike Rocke, VP of Business Development for CoolPlanet follows as well.

CoolPlanet BioFuels

I often have to learn about new sectors before I write about them. That’s not the case here. I’m a chemical engineer by training and before I moved to Silicon Valley a year ago, I worked at the nation’s largest petroleum refinery, blending gasoline.  One reason I chose to leave that industry is that I believe the world’s energy future lies in more sustainable forms of energy, both in terms of environmental and economic sustainability.

Sometimes I like to think about startups in simple terms. I’ll just ask myself: “Is this company trying to do XYZ and trying to make a lot of money doing it?” or “Is this company going to do XYZ and make a lot of money doing it?” There’s a huge difference, and it all boils down to intention. In fact, I’d say that many companies fail because they don’t have this right. Attitude, ambition, technology, customer service, and the hundreds of other factors that shape a startup stem from the intention of the management team.

In the case of CoolPlanet BioFuels, I asked myself this question I’m pretty confident that the innovative folks at CoolPlanet are going to help reverse climate change and make a killing doing it.

I haven’t seen every proprietary detail of CoolPlanet BioFuels’ formula (yet), but I have seen enough to be very excited about what the company is doing. Why? Intention.

The interview I had with Mike Rocke, CoolPlanet’s vice president of business development, was one of the most open, detailed, and interesting interviews I’ve ever done.

The Carbon Neutral Pipedream

CoolPlanet isn’t wasting its time trying to make carbon-neutral fuel. The company is making carbon-negative fuel. What’s the difference? Intention. In terms of intention, carbon-neutral fuel is a pipedream; Carbon-negative fuel is a strategic quest.

All carbon-based fuels (propane, wood, coal, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, and so on) are hydrocarbons, meaning they’re different combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. When these fuels are combusted in the presence of oxygen (remember heat + fuel + oxygen = fire), the carbon and oxygen form CO2, and the hydrogen and oxygen form water, both of which are usually released into the earth’s atmosphere. Energy is released during this process, which we can use to do useful work.

Carbon-based fuels came from plants or plankton that got their energy from the sun (through good old photosynthesis). They also took up CO2 from the atmosphere to make their structural parts, which are also the building blocks of wood, coal, gasoline, and so on.  In summary, plants take the sun’s energy and CO2 from the air to grow and store energy. When we release this stored energy and do useful work with it, we release the CO2 back into the atmosphere.

This process is carbon neutral. My desk plant takes up CO2 (and converts it into the plant’s building materials), and when it dies and rots, it eventually releases all the CO2 back into the environment. A lot of very smart people want to mimic this natural process for fuels. Plants take up CO2 (and the sun’s energy), and we release the stored energy and CO2 back into the environment. This was what the corn-ethanol hype was all about—it’s so simple and perfect!

Except it’s a lie. It never works that way. Let’s use corn-based ethanol as an example. First- and second-generation biofuel companies took corn, mashed it up, threw yeast in the mix, and essentially made beer (a little alcohol in a lot of water). Yeast strains take the sugars in the corn mash and make alcohol and CO2 (which is why beer is carbonated, and dough rises). The ethyl-alcohol (ethanol) can then be separated from the water and mixed with gasoline and used in your car. Awesome, right? No.

A lot of people thought this was a good idea because you grew a crop that pulled CO2 out of the air and eventually burned it, releasing that CO2 back into the air (carbon neutral). Money was poured into this new biofuel sector (from venture capital and government sources) and most of it was wasted.

The problem is that it takes a lot of energy to grow a crop like corn. Corn plants strip a lot of nutrients out of soil, so farmers use a lot of fertilizer to get a good yield.  It takes a lot of energy to make fertilizer, and it takes a lot of energy to harvest and transport corn. Finally, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to separate the water and the ethanol from the “beer” the yeast has made from the corn mash.

All this extra energy comes from fossil fuels (natural gas and petroleum) and releases CO2 into the atmosphere when it’s burned. We had to look at all the input and output from the corn ethanol system to see that more energy was being consumed to make the crop and more CO2 was being released, than was being taken up by the corn. Corn ethanol and most other supposedly carbon-neutral fuels are not carbon neutral, good for the environment, or economically viable.

CoolPlanet has successfully avoided the bad engineering trap that all the corn ethanol companies feed into. While there may be new challenges ahead, CoolPlanet has completely bypassed the big ones by selecting more and better biomass feedstocks (corn cobs, wood chips, and other inedible biomass sources), skipping the expensive fermentation and distillation processes (which saves a ton of money in both capital [tanks, distillation towers, and so on] and operational [energy for distillation] expenses), and capturing more carbon in the process than is released when the fuel is consumed.

Check out part II of this article here and the full interview here.

[Originally published By Andrew Bellay on]