Research Group of Vern Traxler, Biofuels Division at Cool Planet
Colorado-based Cool Planet Energy Systems Inc. is a company with a clear vision; to develop biofuel technology which will result in a cleaner environment, energy independence and improved agriculture.
The current atmospheric CO2 concentration is at its highest level for at least 800,000 years, according to recent data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  CO2 is naturally emitted into the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle; however human activities are estimated to release around 30 billion tons of CO2 each year.  Once in the atmosphere, CO2 absorbs heat released from the earth and contributes to rising global temperatures.
Researchers at Cool Planet, backed by leading US corporations and venture capitalists, are addressing the problem of the global accumulation of CO2 emissions through the development of new biofuel technology which converts non-food biomass into biofuels and soil enhancing biochar called CoolTerra™. The gasoline can be used in existing automobiles without the need for changes to either the vehicles or the fuel distribution systems. The CoolTerra™ biochar is put back into the ground where researchers believe it will retain water and nutrients for commercial agricultural use.
The technology that Cool Planet has developed is centered on an innovative and patented process which incorporates PerkinElmer’s solutions. The process is comprised of three core components and is referred to as the carbon negative fuel cycle.
The Carbon Negative Fuel Cycle
The starting material for the process is non-food biomass such as corn cobs, corn stalks, corn leaves, wood chips and switch grass. Rapidly growing non-food crops are also being investigated for use, such as perennial grasses belonging to the genus Miscanthus.
In the first stage of the process, scientists take the non-food biomass and process it through a mechanical biomass fractioning system that they have invented, called the Bio-Fractionator. This uses pressure and heat to crack the biomass and convert it into useful hydrocarbon-based products.
These products are then converted into different types of fuel using Cool Planet’s proprietary catalytic conversion processes. The leftover plant material is captured in a solid form as specially processed biochar which is used as a soil enhancer. Because the biochar permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere, this process has the ability to be carbon negative.
Three core components of Cool Planet’s patented technology. Image courtesy of Cool Planet.
After catalytically upgrading in the bio-fractionation stage of the process, researchers need to verify the renewable content of the material that they are producing. To do this, they measure the radiocarbon (14C) content of the material.
14C is a radioactive carbon isotope that is naturally produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. This is quickly oxidized to CO2 which is incorporated into plants during photosynthesis. The half-life of 14C is around 5730 years which means that most living organisms will be naturally labeled with low levels of 14C, distributed evenly throughout all of their molecules. Analysis of a biofuel’s 14C activity can therefore be used as a direct measure of its biocarbon content. 
Verification of 14C Biomass Content Using Liquid Scintillation Spectrometry
Vern Traxler (pictured) is an Analytical Laboratory Manager within the Biofuels Division at Cool Planet. One of the responsibilities of Vern’s team is to characterize the biofuel components that are collected following bio-fractionation and catalytic up-grading.
In order to analyze the 14C content of the biomass, the team uses liquid scintillation counting (LSC) to measure the amount of radiation from the beta-emitting radioactive 14C isotope. To this end, they use PerkinElmer’s ultra-low level Quantulus™ Liquid Scintillation Spectrometer. This provides a fast, simple and direct approach to analyzing the biofuel components since the radioactive sample material can be mixed directly with an Ultima Gold™ F Liquid Scintillation Cocktail. The radioactive sample and cocktail mixtures are placed into small transparent vials and the low levels of beta radiation are measured using the Quantulus System.
Vern’s team typically processes two vials per week, testing 2 ml of the biofuel component mixture each time. “The Quantulus is an easy to use system that allows us to verify the percentage of modern carbon in our fuel. Because our fuel is chemically similar to fossil fuel, it is important to us to be able to show our fuel is being made from cellulosic biomass (plants) and not a fossil carbon source”, said Traxler..
Using this method, the Cool Planet team is able to determine the absolute 14C content in the bio-fractionate, which represents how much came from bio-production.
Identification of Organic Components Using GC/MS
After the 14C biomass content has been verified, Vern’s team then need to accurately determine the specific composition of the organics in the material, e.g. xylene, toluene, benzene. To do this, they employ Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) using PerkinElmer’s Clarus® SQ 8T GC/Mass Spectrometer.
Using GC/MS allows researchers to determine the spectral finger print of the organic compounds in the biofuel component mixture; however it cannot tell them the difference in M/Z (mass-to-charge ratio) between 12C-containing and 14C-containing compounds, which is why this technology is used alongside liquid scintillation spectrometry.
Once researchers have identified the organic composition of the hydrocarbon upgrade material, it is then transferred into a distillation processes to produce diesel, jet, or high-octane gasoline and the biochar co-product is collected and used for soil enhancement. This process creates renewable, greener fuel that is improving the health of the environment and which has the potential to revolutionize both the energy and agricultural industries.
You can find out more about Cool Planet’s vision at www.coolplanet.com
You can find out more about CoolTerra™ at www.coolplanet.com/biochar
- United States Environmental Protection Agency website - http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/
- Buchholz BA, Dibble RW, Mueller CJ and Cheng AS (2004) "Measuring the Effect of Fuel Structure and Blend Distribution on Diesel Emissions Using Isotope Tracing". In LDRD 01-ERI-007 Final Report.