A forest epidemic turns into energy opportunity

Fuel start-up Cobalt Technologies has figured out a way to use trees poisoned and killed by pine beetles to make biobutanol, the company announced Wednesday.

Cobalt develops biofuels that can be mixed with gas, diesel, or jet fuel, as well as used to make plastics. Up until now, the company has used forestry byproducts that originated from healthy trees to make its n-butanol. The result is a gasoline blend made up of 12 percent biobutanol, which the company has claimed can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 85 percent when compared to conventional gasoline. It's been touting the fuel as an alternative to ethanol, and in January launched a California plant with the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The company's process for making biofuel from the unhealthy wood is quite similar to the fermentation procedure Cobalt has used on other nonfood biomass. It applies its own proprietary strains of bacteria to ferment the biomass and convert it to n-butanol with one important exception. Because the sap from the beetle-killed trees is a toxin, the scientists first apply a "pretreatment process" to extract the sap from the dead pine before breaking it down. The heat given off from that pretreatment is directed toward the fermentation process to further save energy, according to Helen Allrich, a spokeswoman for Cobalt.