Legislation isn’t working. We don’t seem to have the political or social will to clean up our air. As environmental scientists point to increasing levels of cancer, and as those frightful brown clouds loom over our cities, opponents denounce it all as a liberal plot to restrain trade and prevent corporations from competing in a free market.
Meanwhile, just off Route 206 in Hillsborough, one company is brewing up a more old-fashioned, American solution. “Why not invent our way toward cleaner air?” say the folks at Primus Green Energy Inc.
America slurps down 798 million gallons (just under 19 million barrels) of petroleum daily — almost a quarter of global consumption. Motor gasoline accounts for 44 percent of this fuel usage. It also is the highest source by far of green house gases and other air pollutants. And let’s not even talk about the decreasing ability of the petroleum industry to meet the worldwide thirst for oil.
Clearly, no one is touting crude oil as the fuel of the future. A potentially most convenient, price-competitive, and overall practical successor is currently warming up in Primus’ Hillsborough pilot lab at the modest but steady rate of 40 kilograms per hour.
“You really have to banish all your pre-conceptions about plant-based fuels when it comes to our bio-gasoline,” says George Boyajian, Primus’ vice president of business development. “It just hurdles so many of the stumbling blocks we’ve seen in ethanol, bio-diesel, and others.”
At its core, Primus’ petroleum-gasoline replacement is wood pellets. Not particularly new, but the source offers a very attractive advantage. Unlike ethanol, which requires high grade feed corn grown on prime farm land, Primus’ fuel stems from miscanthus, an ornamental and invasive grass, and switchgrass.
These 10-plus-foot plants flourish in swamps and marginal areas. They provide food for nothing on two legs or four — only motors. These, plus waste wood, especially old industrial pallets, comprise the primary ingredient of Primus’s bio-gasoline.
It is this ingredient, once subjected to the company’s patented, clean-processing methods, which provides those people blending gasoline with a 93 octane substitute for crude oil.
The product, which they call syngas (synthetic gasoline), is an example of a drop-in fuel, explains Boyajian, “because it is ready to drop into the refiner’s tank, which blends it with all the other elements that make up the finished gasoline product.”
There are two kinds of next-generation biofuels, both made from cellulose. One is cellulosic ethanol, distilled from plant fibers. The other kind, known as drop-in fuel, is also made from cellulose through a thermochemical conversion processes.
Although straight, unmixed Primus’ fuel could indeed power your Porsche for a while, commercial gasoline from the pump contains approximately two-thirds other elements to make your motoring experience smoother. Butane is added to increase vapor pressure. Ethanol comprises 10 percent of all U.S. gas. Benzene provides an anti-knocking agent, though recently restricted legally for environmental reasons. Dyes are also added.
Primus manufactures what is known as heavy reformate — that 35 percent of gasoline that gives your car its power, currently provided by petroleum. And there’s a lot to love about this super high octane gas that can fire up anything from a 747 jet to your Mini Cooper.
Wholesalers and refiners can just drop a super premium product into their blending tanks and come out with 93 octane. For environmentalists, the fact that the product involves no inherent, poisonous benzene, unlike petroleum fuel, is a positive.
A strong selling point for engine makers and truck fleet owners is the clean burn and lack of gunk build-up on valves. The fuel also offers high lubricity, and stable, low-corrosive qualities. It can sit long term in a tank without harming it, and still flow at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Primus fuel offers all these advantages and at a competitive price, says Boyajian. “Currently, our projected production costs are on a par with heavy reformate prices on the commodities market.”
Heavy reformate with the national standard of 87 octane now goes for about $2.80 a gallon. Premium goes for another 25 percent, or $3.50. Primus’ labs are now creating their test quantities for an unheard of $3.45 a gallon. Green is springing competitive.
Primus Green Energy’s investment cost of expanding into full production has been swiftly matched by eager investors. Since its it was founded in 2001 by Moshe Ben Reuven, who developed the precursor to Primus’ process at Princeton University, Primus has proved enticing, both for its product and its people. In 2007 Primus joined with major backer Israel Corp., a Tel-Aviv-based holding company whose $12 million infusion in February increased its investment to $40 million.
“Our next step in production is to move beyond our pilot facility into a full demonstration plant, which we are already building right here in our Hillsborough headquarters. We hope to have it completed by December.” says Boyajian.
By 2013, the company plans to break ground on a full-size commercial facility in eastern Pennsylvania. London-based Bechtel Hydrocarbon Technology Solutions, Inc. is consulting on the construction of the facility, which will produce, gasoline, chemicals, or both.
An 18-year veteran of industrial development, Boyajian sees the gasoline market being as volatile as its product, and has strongly advised Primus move with such progressive caution.
Raised in a Philadelphia suburb, Boyajian attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1983 with a bachelor’s in geology. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he returned to his alma mater as a geology professor. In 1995 Boyajian joined the consulting group Round Table Partners as technical advisor, helping build cases for funding applicants.
Following his two-year stint at Round Table, Boyajian launched successively Phytowork Inc., a plant biotechnology firm; Digital Ventures Inc., which commercialized Columbia University’s interactive multimedia; and Living Independently Group Inc., which provided non-wearable safety monitoring for elderly living alone. He has been with Primus Green Energy since October, 2011.
Adding to its already strong energy experience and investor attraction, Primus in March brought aboard renewable energy expert Robert Johnsen as CEO. Johnsen founded and led to maturity ethanol producers Mascoma Corporation and BC International (merged with Verenium Corporation).
Primus chair Dr. Yom-Tov Samia has praised Johnsen’s handling of multiple technologies, and Boyajian adds, “Bob is a man who really knows this market.”
While the company scales up from pilot to full-commercial facility, the production method will change little. “Basically, we make our heavy reformate in a three-step process, which is self-fueling and clean,” says Boyajian.
1. The wood pellets from miscanthus, switchgrass, and waste wood are gasified under heat and compression. This creates a raw syngas.
“Syngas is actually a blend of hydrogen and carbon,” explains Boyajian. “What we are really doing is what mother nature does to cellular life when she buries it underground for millions of years.”
2. The raw syngas is then “scrubbed.” The molecules are broken down under heat, releasing waste carbon and sulfur, providing a clean, hydrogen-rich syngas ready for fuel transformation.
3. Enter the four Primus proprietary stages. ExxonMobil had worked on and off for the past 30 years with some success at the development of syngas into methanol. Much of their, and others’ technology has been adopted by Primus. “But they just didn’t go far enough,” says Boyajian. “We’ve taken the liquid fuel synthesis into its last final mode.”
The sweet part of this final process is the development of net excess steam that is piped back to the initial gathering vat, providing total energy for syngas creation and other steps. Both the manufacturing process and the fuel remain clean.
From each metric ton of wood comes 320 to 350 kilograms of fuel — an impressive 35 percent conversion by weight. While the Primus team has stood on the shoulders of giants to develop its fuel, its own innovation is truly a chemical and engineering breakthrough.
While the $1.2 trillion market for motor fuels is being nibbled at by an endless swarm of competitive other-than-oil companies, no one has yet been able to spy another firm performing the Primus process, at its low-market cost.
As yet, Primus has not branded its product. It is, after all, not sold to consumers. Like the Intel computer chip, it is sold as a prime component. Certainly, the concept of pumping in a load of “Primus Green” has an appeal and corporate leaders are aware of the potential advantage.
Currently all the company’s manufacturing plans are based on herbaceous and woody biomass. “However,” says Boyajian, “natural gas has become very cheap and attractive, and we are eyeing that as an alternative.” This would shift the initial gasification step, taking the natural gas and processing it through a steam methane reformer.
At this point, however, Primus might lose some of its environmental supporters. Natural gas fracking — forcing pressurized liquid into underground rock strata to release gas — has been proven as a source of many water contaminations and health hazards. Unless care is taken, Primus might very well find itself facing the wrong side of the green barricade.
Providing Primus Green Energy executives opt to stay with biomass, they should be able to carve out a strong niche in the alternative clean energy market. Researchers foresee 400 million gallons annually of this biomass-based heavy reformate as their logistical limit. That certainly is not enough to de-throne king oil, but it is enough to make a potential Primus stock IPO something to look at.
For our grandchildren, the question will probably not be “how much of our fuel is imported foreign oil,” but “how much of our total fuel is oil-based,” at all.
“I have a five-year-old-daughter,” says Boyajian. “I want to see that she grows up in a cleaner world.” So if Primus cannot clean it all up, at least the company will take a step in making its little corner a bit easier to breathe in.
Primus Green Energy, 219 Homestead Road, Hillsborough 08844; 908-281-6000; fax, 908-281-6383. Yom-Tov Samia, chairman. www.primusge.com.