Silicon Valley biofuel company gets $2.5m grant

A Silicon Valley company is getting a $2.5 million federal grant to develop a pilot-scale “biorefinery” that will make jet fuel out of switchgrass.

The Energy Department announced the grant to Cobalt Technologies of Mountain View as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to find and use alternative fuels to lower costs and improve performance.

“Advanced biofuels are an important part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, improve our energy security and protect our air and water,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a news release. “The innovative biorefinery projects announced today mark an important step toward producing fuels for our American military and the civil aviation industry from renewable resources found right here in the United States.”

Domestic oil and gas production has increased each year the President has been in office, the Energy Department notes, but at the same time the administration is seeking other ways to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. According to the Energy Department’s Billion Ton Study, advanced biofuels could replace about one-third of the nation’s current transportation petroleum use.

The grant to Cobalt is part of an $18 million investment in four projects across the country in which pilot-scale biorefinery projects will use various non-food biomass feedstocks, waste-based materials, and algae to produce biofuels that meet military specifications for jet fuel and diesel. Recipients must contribute at least 50 percent matching funds for these projects.

Partnered with the Naval Air Warfare China Lake Weapons Division, Show Me Energy Cooperative and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Cobalt intends to build a pilot-scale facility to purify and convert butanol made from switchgrass into jet fuel. The company will both evaluate the process’ efficiency and its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • JAFO

    I believe I recall reading that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of biofuel from switchgrass and other so-called renewable resources than the amount of energy that will be produced by the same gallon of the end product. Does anyone truly believe that makes any sense? I guess we can only hope this latest dive down a taxpayer-subsidized rabbit hole will work out better than the Solyndra and Fisker fiascos. But, I’m not betting on it.

  • Josh Richman

    @1 Hence the research into scalability, efficiency, reducing emissions – they’re trying to find ways to make it worthwhile.

  • JohnW

    @1 and 2

    Also, traditional fossil fuels are becoming more expensive to extract — whether it’s drilling deeper in the ocean, the tar sands oil in canada, fracking or shale. As they find more efficient ways of producing the alternative fuels, and the traditional stuff becomes more difficult to extract and refine, the cost curves presumably meet and cross over at some point.

  • Elwood

    @ 2 & 3

    “There’ll be pie in the sky by and by. IT’S A LIE!” Woody Guthrie

  • JohnW


    Dear PG&E,

    My friend Elwood wishes to opt out of renewable energy. Please honor his request by automatically cutting off his monthly power when he reaches 80.6% of his normal energy consumption, as measured by your ever so popular Smart Meter. That reduction will account for the 19.4% of energy you generated from renewable sources in 2012.

    Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

  • Charlie Peters

    Will BP-DuPont have an interest in this butanol public-private partnership

  • JAFO

    @2 Thanks for so carefully explaining, essentially justifying, the claims made in the Department of Energy’s press release. It’s always been my belief the reporters almost instinctively apply a dose of healthy skepticism to every press release they receive. It appears you may have missed that lecture during your “J School” matriculation. I’m sorry I’m no longer sending our press releases. I would have appreciated having you on my mailing list.

  • JohnW


    Yes, Josh should have injected journalistic integrity by saying something like, “Yeah, right! Jet fuel out of non-food bio sources? LOL. You can’t trust these Obama guys. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

  • Josh Richman

    @7 – Not sure I understand your indignation, JAFO, given that your gripe about the cost of the energy required for production may be a wee bit out of date, and that major oil companies have seen the potential here for years.

    Given your Solyndra comment, I’ll assume you’re coming at this from the “anything-the-Obama-administration-does-is-a-waste-of-money” standpoint, even though this grant bears no resemblance to the loan guarantee that Solyndra received.

    If you believe that government has no role in energy reserach under any circumstances, say so. For my part, I’d note that there wouldn’t be nuclear power if not for government research, and I’d think fiscal conservatives would want to find some way to cut the military’s tremendous fuel costs.

  • JAFO

    I’m actually pretty indignant about every administration since Nixon’s, given their equally vacuous calls for “energy independance.” None have been able to articulate, let alone effect, a coherent or effective national energy policy. Obama’s is only the latest administration to toy with high-priced, highly subsidized and only marginally effective alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power. Virtually all of these latest feel-good efforts still result in meeting only a very small fraction of our power and transportation needs. It’s rather amusing that you’d site nuclear. Yes, that industry has certainly enjoyed it’s own share of subsidies. But ironically, most wind, solar, switchgrass, algae and cooking oil devotees remain steadfast in their opposition to nuclear power, and incidentally, hydro electric and geo-thermal. How many new commercial nuclear power plants have been approved in this country in the last 20 years? I think many of these well meaning but truly naive folks would rather we all read your newspaper by the light of coal oil lamps. OMG, not coal! I mean candle light.

  • Josh Richman

    @10 – Do you see any difference between subsidizing the research and subsidizing an industry? And speaking of subsidies, hasn’t the U.S. government been subsidizing fossil fuels for 100 years (since the Revenue Act of 1913)?

  • JAFO

    @11 I do recognize the difference. I would also add that to the extent that the fossil fuels industry has been subsidized for the past 100 years, governments and taxpayers have realized a remarkable return on their investment. With the exception of nuclear, the same cannot remotely be said for any of the fanciful alternatives.

  • JohnW

    Although I’ve tended to go with the “all of the above” philosophy, I think Obama’s greatest contribution to both energy independence and reducing emissions has been on the conservation side — i.e., pushing the envelope on the CAFE mileage standards. We probably can’t produce as much oil domestically as we can save via the CAFE standards. Unlike oil reserves, consumption savings last forever. Unlike oil, consumption savings don’t get exported into the global market. You don’t have to worry about aging refinery bottlenecks. Consumers pocket the savings, which increases discretionary spending power, which boost the economy. Win, win, win!

    Japan tempered my enthusiasm for nuclear, and you don’t hear that much about nuclear these days. One reason is that the economics of building and operating a plant are no longer very favorable. When was the last time a company even applied for approval to build?

  • Elwood

    ” For my part, I’d note that there wouldn’t be nuclear power if not for government research, and I’d think fiscal conservatives would want to find some way to cut the military’s tremendous fuel costs.”

    Obvious solution: Nuclear powered military vehicles. Equally as practical as fuel from vegetables.

  • JohnW

    Switchgrass. There might be money to be made from those weeds in my back yard. If they are going to power military jets, I consider it my patriotic duty to not remove them.

  • MichaelB


    Nothing “well meaning” about Stephen Chu being quoted earlier as trying to deliberately get gasoline prices as high as those in Europe ($8 – $9 per gallon) to force people in this country to use so called “green” alternatives.

    Another example of Obama “being for the little guy”? By making him/her pay this much to drive to work each day?

  • MichaelB


    “Given your Solyndra comment, I’ll assume you’re coming at this from the “anything-the-Obama-administration-does-is-a-waste-of-money” standpoint, even though this grant bears no resemblance to the loan guarantee that Solyndra received.”

    Shall the rest of us assume that you are coming at this from the “we are just one government spending/stimulus plan away from economic expansion/prosperity” standpoint? Only the government can create/develop/distribute energy sources?

    Any problems going forward with the nation needing abundant/inexpensive energy sources for businesses/ consumers and the Obama Administration putting up roadblocks to develop them? It’s more important to satisfy left wing environmental groups than to receive imported oil from Canada (a friendly nation and an ally)?