Is CoolPlanet Biofuels too good to be true?

Imagine a company that says it can produce virtually limitless amounts of cheap gasoline, create arable land for food production and solve the climate crisis–all at once.

That’s the promise of CoolPlanet BioFuels.

Mike Cheiky

Mike Cheiky, the company’s founder and CEO, spoke about CoolPlanet’s “negative emissions technology” at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. Yes, negative emissions.

Does that mean, I asked him, that the more you drive a car powered by CoolPlanet’s biofuels, the more CO2 will be pulled out of the air? Yes, he replied.

“The world doesn’t have too much carbon,” Cheiky explained. The problem’s is that the carbon’s in the wrong place. There’s too much in the atmosphere, causing global warming,  and not enough in the soil. Essentially, Cool Planet has a plan to use plants to remove it from the air and then restore it to the land.

Before you decide that this is too good to be true, you should know that Cheiky, a veteran entrepreneur, has persuaded Google, General Electric, BP, ConocoPhillips, NRG Energy, Exelon and venture capital firms Shea Ventures and North Bridge Venture Partners to invest millions of dollars–he won’t say how many millions–in CoolPlanet Biofuels.

“We have been poked and prodded so many ways by so many people,” Cheiky told me. “GE sent 17 people to do their due diligence at a time when we had only 15 employees.”

These investors wrote him checks, he added, because of his track record. “I’ve done six start-ups in my career,” he went on, “and I’ve never had a down round. They’ve all been very successful.” [click to continue...]

The carbon negative economy

Robert C. Brown of Iowa State

“Let’s not simply reduce the CO2 emissions going up into the atmosphere. Let’s draw them down.”

So says Robert Brown, a professor of engineering at Iowa State University and a leader of the university’s Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy and its Bioeconomy Institute. Those are interdisciplinary campus efforts to develop ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing plants or algae, making them into fuels and burying their carbon residues in soil–and make money doing it.

The notion that we can generate wealth and remove CO2 from the air is obviously appealing. As atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rise and climate risks grow, so does the need for carbon-negative technologies that pull CO2 from the air, as plants do, and then store it  underground or deep in the ocean.

But is this practical, or a pipe dream? That’s what Brown and his colleagues at Iowa State and its Bioeconomy Institute want to find out, as they explained this week at a two-day workshop on  biochar  — that’s the term used for the charcoal created when biomass is decomposed at high heat, in a process called pyrolysis. The workshop was part of the Carbon War Room‘s Creating Climate Wealth Summit in Washington, D.C..

The Carbon War Room, as you may know, is a nonprofit created by Richard Branson of Virgin fame to unlock gigaton-scale, market-driven solutions to climate change. Its new president will be Jose Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica. The group is also tackling projects around energy efficiency, renewable jet fuel, low-carbon ocean shipping and sustainable livestock.

Biochar has been around for a long time, but it’s getting new attention from government and business. The Iowa State researchers last fall were awarded a $25 million research grant  from USDA to see if they can find ways to use  marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses and turn them into biofuels and biochar. Local firms like ADM, the agribusiness giant, have expressed support. [click to continue...]

Biochar: Too good to be true?

Agricultural residents and converted biochar

Would you like to curb or even reverse global warming? Help feed the world? Generate renewable energy?

Biochar is the answer, say its most fervent advocates.

If only life were so simple.

Biochar, alas, isn’t ready yet to be a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, or a way to enhance agricultural productivity at scale. But it’s an intriguing substance that has been around for thousands of years, and the production of biochar may prove to be one of the  technologies that governments and business deploy to deal with the threat of climate change. As, potentially, a carbon negative technology, it’s worth a look.

Biochar, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a charcoal-like substance that is created today by pyrolysis of biomass. In layman’s terms, biochar is made by taking organic material, like agricultural waste, heating it to very high temperatures, and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen.

Jonah Levine

To learn about biochar, I met recently in Boulder, Colorado, with Jonah Levine, who is a co-owner of his own small biochar business and, until recently, was an executive with a startup called Biochar Engineering.   Jonah, who is 30 and lives near Boulder, got involved with biochar when a friend asked him to organize a conference on the technology in 2009 at the University of Colorado. A passionate environmentalist, he had previously worked as a wildlife biologist and as an engineer advising utilities on how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid.

Now he’s bullish on biochar.

“I feel like like I’m watching the beginning of an industry,” Jonah says. “Within a  decade, I feel this will be a functional business space.” [click to continue...]