Company Turns Beetle-Plagued Dead Forests From Tragedy into Fuel

The scale of the mountain pine beetle’s destruction of Western North American forests is almost unimaginable. Already more than half of the 5 million acres of lodgepole pine forests in Colorado have been destroyed, and 10’s of millions more acres across the Western U.S. and Canada are affected — with an estimated 40 million acres of lodgepole pine devastation in British Columbia alone.

While this is a sad state of affairs — we could be witnessing the end of the western lodgepole pine forest as we know it — the huge amounts of dead wood left in the beetle’s path of destruction are finding a happy end as a source for renewable fuel.

Cobalt Technologies, a company based in Mountain View California that has picked up the endorsement of the Governator himself, has announced a breakthrough in converting all that dead wood into biobutanol, a drop-in replacement for petroleum and petrochemicals.

“With this breakthrough, we’ve been able to turn a problem into an opportunity,” said Rick Wilson, Ph.D., chief executive officer of Cobalt Technologies. “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.”

As it turns out, butanol is an even better gasoline substitute than ethanol. Cobalt Technologies has recently gained recognition as the first company to bring biobutanol to market in a meaningful way. They convert non-food materials, such as forest waste and mill residues, into n-butanol. The n-butanol is incredibly versatile and can be blended with gasoline, diesel and ethanol. Because of its low volatility it is also far more compatible with engine components than ethanol. The n-butanol can also be converted into jet fuel or plastics, or used in paints, cleaners, adhesives and flavorings. That flavorings part is a bit sketchy. I don’t care if the FDA approves it.

Anyway, in a partnership with Colorado State University, Cobalt is in the process of testing the beetle-killed lodgepole-derived butanol in a gasoline blend in engines to determine if there are any adverse effects. Hopefully they’ll be able to work out any kinks and get this to market quickly. Of course, there’re always the Feds to go through, so the process could take a few years. In the meantime, the mountain pine beetle will be hard at work making 10’s of millions of more acres of forest into a biofuel feedstock.

Source: Biofuels Digest

Image Credit: krossbow’s Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.