Energy giant BP, Europe's second-largest oil company, has invested in yet another biofuels startup. This time, it's CoolPlanet BioFuels, a startup out of Camarillo, Calif., that has developed so-called negative carbon fuels that look (chemically) like crude oil, but that don't contain carbon.
This isn't BP's first foray into biofuels. The company paid $98.3 million last year to buy the biofuel unit of Verenium and has invested in Synthetic Genomics,among others. BP didn't disclose the amount of this latest investment, which was part of a series C funding round led by Shea Ventures. However, CoolPlanet did say the financing round was wrapped up ahead of schedule so it could accelerate the development of its modular fuel production plants. The company says it expects to deploy hundreds of "relatively low-cost modular plants" around the U.S. in the next few years.
CoolPlanet has developed a technology called biomass fractionator that converts low-grade biomass into high-grade negative carbon fuel. The company begins with non-food biomass like wood chips and plant waste and extracts the useful hydrocarbons from it, leaving the excess carbon behind as a solid. The bio-based gasoline that remains can be blended with conventional gasoline and used in today's vehicles, according to the company.
The company claims that by burying the carbon correctly it can enhance soil fertility and sequester carbon for hundreds of years.
UPDATE: I've gathered a few more details on this so-called negative carbon fuel from the company.
The plant waste and wood chips etc. used as a biomass feedstock is "carbon neutral" because it takes carbon out of the air to grow through photosynthesis, according to CoolPlanet. The company then removes additional carbon as biochar after a thermochemical treatment to produce the fuel. The biochar is made during the process of heating the biomass with limited to no oxygen in a specially designed furnace that captures all emissions, gasses and oils for reuse as energy.
If they take out an equivalent mass of biochar and fuel, the fuel becomes carbon negative. If they produce less biochar than fuel, then the fuel is low, or reduce carbon.
Google Ventures, the company venture capital arm, as well as North Bridge Venture Partners and General Electric also have invested in the company.
Oil and energy companies keen on finding low-cost alternative that look and act like fossil fuels are particularly interested in CoolPlanet's tech probably because the negative carbon fuel is a drop-in replacement for gasoline or diesel and can be used in existing oil and gas infrastructure.
Last January, GE, NRG Energy and ConocoPhilllips formed Energy Technology Ventures, a $300 million venture capital fund created to help 30 companies over the next four years. CoolPlanet, along with thin-film startup Alta Devices and biochemical tech firm Ciris Energy, were the first companies tapped for the VC fund.
According to CoolPlanet more energy companies may soon follow BP, Conoco and NRG. Several other energy companies are in the process of testing and evaluating CoolPlanet's fuel. Eventually, the company wants to mass produce its modular fuel production plants on a production line basis.
Photo: Flickr user davidreberhammer, CC 2.0; CoolPlanet BioFuels