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.)