Greenwood Village, Colorado
Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Engineered biocarbon
For President and CEO Jim Loar, the bottoming out of oil prices opened a new world of opportunities for engineered biocarbon in agriculture.
Cool Planet was founded on a big idea: take biomass and convert that into a carbon-negative renewable fuel. As Loar puts it, "The more you drive your Hummer, the better you are at cleaning up the atmosphere."
But as oil prices fell, interest in, and funding for, renewable fuels "just absolutely dried up," says Loar. Immediately before beginning work on a large-scale plant, the company made the decision to pivot from renewable fuels to agriculture.
While working on fuels, the company also started "investing in soil scientists, microbiologists, and plant pathologists to study the carbon, how it could be used in the soil, and the value it would have," he adds. They found that the value was significant and were prepared to make the change to agriculture.
Cool Planet now produces Cool Terra products and markets them across the U.S. "as an engineered biocarbon to improve soil health," says Loar. "When we talk about soil health that means three or four key things" -- increased water holding capacity of the soil, keeping nutrients and micronutrients in the root zone of the plant, improving efficiency of fertilizers, and stimulating the biology of the soil.
"We've spent a year doing significant field trials to prove the efficacy and value of the material," says Loar. Researchers from multiple institutions ran trials, including Kansas State, University of Florida, University of California, and in Fort Collins at CSU. They ran trials on in various soil types and with different crops. Positive results encouraged the company to move forward in ag.
Loar spent the last 30 years in the agriculture industry, and through the worldview of his grown children, the sustainability aspects of engineered biocarbon became clearer. Both of his kids are in agriculture, and Loar recounts how they approached him with their thoughts. "You know, dad, you guys can really make a difference." They pointed to the sustainability resulting from water and fertilizer efficiency, how the biocarbon targets the rhizosphere -- the region of soil where the roots are, and the carbon sequestration properties.
Loar states, "We've struggled with how to be sustainable in agriculture and still make a profit. This material adds profitability to the grower and sustainability to society. To me that is near perfect alignment."
Engineered biocarbon has many other uses beyond fuel and improving soil health. Wes Bolsen, the company's head of global business development and external affairs, talks about Cool Planet as a materials science company. "Cool Planet is really developing an engineered biocarbon platform technology -- it's not about one product," he says. "We're a company that has expertise in shaping and molding and forming a material for multiple different uses, uses in animal nutrition, water, soil health, and microbial delivery."
A critical component of engineered biocarbon is biomass found in agricultural waste or right in our backyard. The Rockies are littered with beetlekill trees. Cool Planet is part of a federal grant program through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to explore how to deal with dead and dying trees. Farms also benefit by selling agricultural residue to the company. "It's ag in and ag out," says Bolsen.
The future looks bright. "The use of a fixed carbon in soil for soil health is in its infancy. It's a blank sheet," says Loar. Over 400 million acres of treatable crop land in the U.S. represents significant potential. Cool Planet focuses on using the growers existing equipment and processes to deliver the biocarbon without any additional steps. Doing so provides "at least a three to one return to the grower for his investment in the product that season."
While not currently manufacturing the biocarbon in Colorado -- that happens in Camarillo, California -- Cool Planet is in a growing mode. They are building their first large-scale plant in Alexandria, Louisiana, and expect to open later this year. In the future Loar sees more plants in locations with large amounts of biomass such as beetlekill forests or areas of heavy agriculture.
Challenges: Remaining focused. "We want to do a few things really well, so more of a rifle approach instead of a shotgun," says Loar. Because soil health is a new concept, educating the market is also a challenge.
Opportunities: "This could be a billion-dollar company in 10 years," claims Loar, citing the size of the potential market, sustainability, and return on investment for the grower. He also sees additional growth areas, including animal feed, animal supplements, and water treatment. "The University of Idaho is doing some novel water treatment work around taking phosphates out of water, and they're buying and using our material," notes Loar. Cool Planet is also looking beyond the borders of the U.S. for expansion.
Needs: "Capital," says Loar. "Any startup has capital needs." He describes a challenging capital infrastructure in Denver compared to other parts of the country, but remains optimistic.