CoolPlanet Biofuels: Too good to be true?

The Gunther Report

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, 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."

Cheiky does not lack self-confidence. He and his wife, Charity, started Ohio Scientific, one of the world's first personal computer companies, in 1975, right after he graduated from college. "I was very successful as an early pioneer in the microcomputer era," he told me.

He built an electric car in the early 1990s but subsequently decided that "we would not be able to deploy electric vehicles fast enough to combat climate change." More recently, Cheiky founded Zinc Matrix Power, which became ZPower, a company that makes small rechargeable silver-zinc batteries for mobile applications.

He also started Transonic Combustion, which aims to dramatically improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. Venrock and Khosla Ventures invested in Transonic, and former GM exec Bob Lutz sits on its board. Cheiky is no longer involved in ZPower or Transonic -- a sign that he is probably better at starting companies than managing them. He says he left Transonic when he realized that "just making the engines more efficient wasn't going to do the job. I had to crack the problem of the fuel."

The concept behind CoolPlanet is simple. Begin with biomass, in the form of wood chips, corn cobs or fast-growing crops like miscanthus. Process it through a bio-fractionator using a proprietary thermal/chemical process. Make gasoline that's identical to the fuel pumped into your car. Then take a carbon-rich byproduct, a solid biochar, and bury it to sequester carbon or use it to enhance soil. (Here's a long interview with Mike Rocke, VP of business development at CoolPlanet BioFuels, explaining the process.  I've also pasted an explanation from the company website, below.)

Cheiky says that CoolPlanet Biofuels will be able to make gasoline for $1 a gallon. Yes, $1 a gallon. The company then will deploy biochar to make more land on which more crops can be grown to make more gasoline, and so forth.

He said:

We have a sustainable model. We can power the world, literally, provide all the liquid fuels need for the world, with land that we can create, basically. You've got to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground to have more fertile land to grow more food crops and fuel crops at the same time.

In a decade or two, he told me, as the company gets to massive scale, this new way of making fuels could not only destroy OPEC but offset all of the world's carbon emissions.

Can this  be true? It's hard to know, because CoolPlanet is a bit of a black box. The company won't get into the details of its technology, which is understandable; that's its competitive advantage. Cheiky also won't say how much money he has raised, which is unusual; most startups are transparent about their financing. He was also a bit vague when asked about how much water will be needed to grow the feedstock crops. Whether biochar can be used to sequester carbon, and for how long, is yet another unanswered question. (See my blogpost, The carbon negative economy)

Yet Cheiky says the company's technology is already working, albeit on a small scale, near its headquarters in Camarillo, Calif. His plan is to build a commercial plant somewhere in the midwest next year. Initially, the plant will probably run on waste products like corn cobs or wood chips, but it can also consume fast-growing plants like miscanthus, switchgrass and sorghum.

"A giant miscanthus can grow 20 feet tall in a season," Cheiky says. The company said recently that it generated 4,000 gallons of gasoline per acre of biomass  in pilot testing using giant miscanthus.

CoolPlanet Biofuels could be a game-changer -- or it could prove to be another disappointment in the biofuels business, which has so far has produced more hype than economic or environmental benefit. Let's hope that Cheiky is right, and that his company is on to something big.

Here's how CoolPlanet explains its process:

This breakthrough utilizes mild process conditions, with process temperatures comparable to a kitchen stovetop and maximum pressures comparable to a portable tire inflator. Input biomass is coarsely ground from in field air-dried bioenergy crops with moisture content in the 10-20 percent range. Many advanced energy crops retain root structure for several years and are simply cut down once a year for harvesting, dramatically reducing the carbon intensity of agricultural activities versus other bio sources such as algae farming or wood clearing, chipping and drying. The total process time from biomass to fuel is under one hour. Total energy and biomass feedstock cost using today's commodity pricing is under 60 cents a gallon.

And here's a video of Mike Cheiky talking about the company at a Google event called Solve for <x>:

Eco gas pump photo via Shutterstock.