Posted May 18th 2012 4:00PM
Primus Green Energy Ltd. just announced that it has produced its first viable batch of renewable "drop-in" gasoline. The New Jersey-based company, an American subsidiary of the holding company Israel Corp, next plans to build a commercial plant in eastern Pennsylvania that will be able to produce up to 4.8 million gallons of bio-gasoline per year.
Reportedly, the bio-gasoline is produced from a blend of biomass inputs (the company cites wood pellets, switchgrass, and "herbaceous materials" as examples) and natural gas. The resulting product, if all pans out as Primus intends, will be price-competitive with standard gasoline but burn cleaner. Most alluringly, the bio-gas will be usable in standard gas powered cars without any special conversion or engine modification.
Intrigued? Find out more after the jump.
Let's not beat about the bush: this sounds pretty awesome. There are so many reasons to be excited about this. Here are just a few:
1. It uses readily available biomass. One of the primary disadvantages of ethanol is its dependence on food crops, namely, corn - driving up the price of an otherwise cheap food and requiring the use of millions of acres of land. Primus bio-gasoline would use as its biomass inputs things like wood pellets, which are an abundant byproduct of many forest-based industries. So when Primus builds that plant in Pennsylvania, it'll be adding a green-economy edge to a struggling region. Corn still has its pros and cons as a bio-fuel, but it's not necessarily destined to be ethanol's only source forever. Scientists are hard at work finding ways to break down other substances, like the tough weed and perennial cattle menu topper, switchgrass. But that work has not yet come to fruition.
2. It's "drop-in." Primus' bio-gasoline doesn't need to be blended with anything (as ethanol does, making blended gasoline just 15 per cent "renewable," at best). Unlike biodiesel (and the stuff made from recycled deep-fryer oil, which is renewable as long as people keep eating fried foods, or roughly for all eternity), Primus' bio-gas won't require any modifications to gas stations or to gasoline engines.
3. It's domestic. All the biomass ingredients are widely available, as is natural gas, which, if all works as Primus claims, would make it a pretty effective tool in reducing dependence on foreign oil.
4. It burns cleaner. Primus' bio-gasoline, even if its claims are 100 per cent true, won't burn as cleanly as biodiesel does, but as a fossil fuel substitute, it will reduce emissions by about 50 per cent from standard gasoline.
5.It's marketable. Primus estimates that its bio-gasoline can be profitable - that is, price-competitive with standard gasoline - if crude oil is at USD$60 a barrel or higher. Since crude right now hovers around USD$100 a barrel and rising, Primus looks to have a chance at a good market share if its estimations are correct.
Yes, good reasons to be excited. Primus' innovation could be one of the most important breakthroughs yet in the campaign to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. But - and you knew there would be a "but" - that also means it's important enough to be gun-shy and skeptical with doubting queries like these:
1. Does this process use natural gas or what? Primus' press release says the biomass materiel is used "in conjunction with natural gas." Basic research search turns up many articles presenting Primus' breakthrough, but most of them just present Primus' official statements, which only mention natural gas in passing - if at all. On Primus' website, the phrase "natural gas" occurs only twice: once saying it "can be used as a supplemental feedstock to maintain continuity of production and flexibility to address cost fluctuations," and once on a diagram, annotated "optional." So just what is the role of natural gas in this process?
It's impossible to tell. It turns out that Primus' second favourite word - after "biomass" - is "proprietary." The formula is proprietary. The technology is proprietary. The enhancements to existing commercial techniques are proprietary. And hey, that's cool. If this pans out, Primus deserves to make a mint. But this question about the role of natural gas is important because natural gas, despite having the word "natural" in the name, isn't actually a renewable resource. It is, of course, a fossil fuel. It's still domestically accessible and more available than oil, but knowing how it's used in the "biomass gasification" process would also define just how "renewable" - not to mention how "bio" - this bio-gasoline will be.
2. Switchgrass? Really? If you watch this space regularly, and all the cool kids do, then you may remember that just a year ago, scientists triumphantly announced that they'd isolated the microbe that cows use to break down switchgrass. That was a breakthrough in the turn-switchgrass-into-fuel campaign that's been going on since the 1980s. There's been some success with simpler fuels - switchgrass is now commonly compressed into pellets for use in home pellet-burning stoves - but at last word there were significant commercialization obstacles to using switchgrass for ethanol, let alone commercialization and scientific obstacles for actual gasoline.
Yet Primus claims to have succeeded where others have failed - it mentions switchgrass as a biomass component in most, if not all, of its publicity materials, and several times on its website. If so - well done Primus! That's amazing! But? how, may we ask? Oh. Right. Proprietary.
3. Will Israel Corp will free us from our dependence on foreign... holding companies? Primus is wholly owned by Israel Corp, an Israel-based holding company that owns several other energy-based companies. Now, we live in a global economy, and lots of corporate structures cross international barriers - U.S. presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, drives an American car that's made in Canada, for example. But it is worth asking, if high on our list of reasons for wanting renewable gasoline is reduced dependence on foreign oil, should we not also want to reduce our dependence on foreign holding companies?
At a glance, Primus sounds like it's on to something pretty cool. But until it's proprietary secrets deliver, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.