By Clint Williams
Green Right Now

In a high-octane twist to making lemonade when life hands you lemons, a California company has developed the technology to make biofuel from beetle-killed lodgepole pines. Commercial production of butanol from timber promises to provide a clean-burning biofuel that offers several advantages over ethanol made from corn.

Lodgepole pines killed by pine beetles (Photo: Forest Service, USDA)

Pine forests up and down the Rocky Mountain range have been devastated by the mountain pine beetle, a by-product, some say, of global warming. The problem is especially acute in Colorado, where the tiny tree killers have infested nearly half of the state’s five million acres of pine forest. The result of the infestation: millions of acres of dead pines that pose a significant fire hazard to mountain communities and the, as yet, uninfested forest.

(The global warming link: drought-stricken or heat-stressed pines are more susceptible to the beetle, a natural predator that helps forests regenerate. Recent beetle outbreaks, though, have gone far beyond the norm, killing forests at an accelerated pace.)

Converting stands of dead timber promises to be a classic win-win situation, says Rick Wilson, Ph.D., chief executive officer of Cobalt Technologies based in Mountain View, California.

“With this breakthrough, we’ve been able to turn a problem into an opportunity,” says Wilson. “Harvesting beetle-killed trees could produce low-carbon fuels and chemicals, establish a foundation for a sustainable biorefinery industry and create jobs, particularly in rural areas. If we use only half of the 2.3 million acres currently affected in Colorado alone, we could produce over two billion gallons of biobutanol – enough to blend into all the gasoline used in Colorado for six years.”

Key to the development of bio-fuels in the United States, dead trees are cheap raw material.

“The biggest cost in bio-fuels is feedstock and corn is expensive,” says Wilson.

The technology developed by Cobalt Technologies, Wilson says, allows for the cost-effective production of butanol from forest waste. Everything from the fermentation tanks to the bacteria used to turn sugars into fuel is designed to drive down costs.

People won’t embrace bio-fuels if they aren’t cost-competitive with gasoline, Wilson says.

The first round of engine testing with a gasoline-butanol blend made with the biobutanol from beetle-killed wood was recently completed at the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins under the auspices of the University’s Sustainable Bioenergy Development Center.

The first round of testing used a blend of 15 percent butanol, says Ken Reardon, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Colorado State University. Subsequent testing will use varying blends and run times.

Butanol packs more punch per gallon than ethanol, Reardon says.

A gallon of gasoline contains 115,000 British thermal units (Btus). A gallon of ethanol has just 75,000 Btus. That is why cars running on E85 E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, get slightly fewer miles per gallon that a gasoline powered automobile. Butanol provides 100,000 Btus per gallon.

The gasoline-butanol blend burns cleaner than straight gasoline early tests show, Reardon says.

Butanol has a wide market beyond the gas station, Wilson says. It has the potential to be blended with jet fuel and diesel fuel.

“No one is ever going to expect an electric jet. No one is every going to expect an electric tractor trailer rig,” Wilson says.

Butanol is also used as an ingredient in products ranging from house paint to make-up.

“Clearly, this is a significant achievement and a major step forward toward the production of cellulosic bio-fuels. Converting beetle-killed pine for bio-fuels is an extremely difficult process,” said Ken Reardon, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Colorado State University.

“If Cobalt can convert beetle-killed wood, it’s likely that the company can make bio-fuel from almost any cellulosic feedstock.”

Cobalt Technologies, whose motto is “Biobutanol and Beyond,” was founded in 2005 to develop the next generation of biofuels that could be derived from domestic feedstock without adding carbon to the atmosphere  or stressing water supplies.

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