The deaths of lodgepole pine trees have a silver lining
The Denver Post
It’s not exactly turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but Cobalt Technologies Inc. is aiming to transform pine-bark-beetle-killed lodgepole pines into motor fuel.
A Colorado State University lab is preparing to test the brew from the California startup company in a four-stroke, overhead-valve Honda engine.
The aim at CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Lab will be to measure the power output and air emissions of the fuel.
Using a proprietary fermentation process, Mountain View, Calif.-based Cobalt has turned lodgepole into the biofuel butanol, which is more like gasoline than ethanol.
“Butanol has some advantages,” said Ken Reardon, a CSU professor of chemical and biological engineering.
Some motorists don’t like ethanol because it has only two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline, resulting in lower mileage. Ethanol also can lead to corrosion because the molecule attracts water from the air.
One of the chemical differences between an ethanol molecule and a butanol molecule is that the former has two carbon atoms and the latter four, making butanol more powerful and less likely to attract water. Butanol is still about 15 percent less powerful than gasoline.
Several companies are pursuing butanol development, including Englewood-based Gevo Inc. Cobalt’s strategy, however, is to make butanol from wood.
“Wood presents some real challenges,” Reardon said.
Still, moving to feedstock such as wood or grass and away from food sources is key to developing biofuels, said Tom Foust, director of advance biofuels at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.
“One-third of the corn crop goes to ethanol production. That isn’t sustainable,” Foust said. “We have to go to cellulosic feed stocks.”
Softwood, especially beetle kill, is a plentiful and cheap feedstock to start on, Cobalt’s Rick Wilson said.
“The next step would be to get to pilot plant scale, producing about 1.5 million gallons a year,” said Wilson, Cobalt’s chief executive.
At the CSU lab, mechanical-engineering professor Anthony Marchese will put a pint of test fuel through its paces – measuring power and analyzing exhaust.
“We chose the Honda engine because it was sophisticated enough to be compared to an auto engine,” Marchese said.
The biggest hurdle may not be chemical or technical.
“The challenge may be financial to get to commercial scale,” Wilson said.
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