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A forest epidemic turns into energy opportunity

Biofuel start-up Cobalt Technologies says it's found a way to make biobutanol with wood from forests ravaged by pine beetles.

Colorado has been particularly affected by the pine beetle epidemic with entire pine forests being killed completely. (The trees in red are dead.) Office of Congressman John T. Salazar, D-Colo.

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.

Colorado State University has agreed to partner with Cobalt to test how well gasoline blended with the biobutanol will perform in engines.

"If Cobalt can convert beetle-killed wood, it's likely that the company can make biofuel from almost any cellulosic feedstock," Ken Reardon, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Colorado State University, said in a statement.

As it's been widely reported, the Mountain pine beetle and other pine beetles have been a nuisance to forests across the U.S. and Canada, particularly in Colorado and British Columbia. If testing goes well, it could offer a significant opportunity to turn a negative situation into a useful one.

"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," Rick Wilson, chief executive officer of Cobalt, said in a statement.