Gasoline’s comeback in the bio-based era: 5 cleantech companies vie for green gasoline breakthroughs

March 15, 2012 |

Gasoline – the 20th century’s Wonder Fuel, bashed for years over price, source and emissions – ready for a comeback, courtesy of 5 bio-based revolutionaries?

In the rush to replace fossil (e.g. ancient algae) gasoline over emissions, and energy security concerns, most of the focus has fallen on technologies that replace the fuel or the cars altogether -  ethanol, hybrids, full electric, natural gas, just to name a few.

There has been less attention paid to the direct route – replacing fossil gasoline with renewable gasoline.

Partly, that was the function of available technology – finding a renewable gasoline producer was the hardest thing going in clean energy, excepting perhaps finding a plug-in electric car that sells for under $30,000.

But in the past two years, five technologies have emerged that are focused on renewable gasoline (along with some others that have the capability of producing gasoline-like fuels but are focused primarily on diesel or jet fuel).

The five main contenders, to date, are Terrabon, Primus Green Energy, Cool Planet Biofuels, CORE Biofuel and Sundrop Fuels.

Primus Green Energy

This week in New Jersey, Primus Green Energy announced that it has completed its third round of funding with the recent $12 million investment by IC Green Energy Ltd, the renewable energy arm of Israel Corp. Ltd. This latest investment brings the total of funds raised since 2007 to $40 million.

The latest $12 million investment completes the financing for the integrated single-loop demonstration plant currently under construction at Primus Green Energy’s Hillsborough, N.J., site. Primus already has a pilot test plant in operation at its Hillsborough complex, and the company plans to break ground in early 2013 on its first commercial plant.

Primus is currently working with Bechtel Hydrocarbon Technology Solutions Inc. regarding the design and final estimated commercial plant construction and operating costs.

The technology? The front end consists of biomass gasification or converting natural gas to syngas and the back end, its “STG Plus” (syngas-to-green) gasoline process, a proprietary version of an established fuel synthesis technology. The company says that, at scale, it can produce gasoline at a price competitive with gasoline produced from petroleum at $60-$70 per barrel.

Earlier this year, Primus Green Energy said that it plans to raise $50 million to $100 million to this year to take its wood pellets-to-drop-in gasoline demonstration plant, which should be online by year’s end, to commercial scale by 2015.

The process was first developed by Princeton University by its co-founder in 2007 who originally raised $40 million from Israeli investors. Water is produced as a byproduct.

CORE Biofuel

Over in Canada, in January, CORE BioFuel said that it signed an exclusive agreement with Osprey Capital Partners, to secure equity investment capital to fund the completion of construction engineering for CORE’s first wood-to-Green Gasoline plant to be built in Canada.

This major step will enable CORE to establish an Engineering, Procurement and Construction contract; in turn, the EPC contract will allow CORE to secure project debt financing and performance guarantees for the plants through AON Reed Stenhouse, one of the largest insurance brokers in the world.

Sundrop Fuels

In Louisiana, Colorado-based Sundrop Fuels is buying about 1,200 acres near Alexandria for its first gasification plant to produce 50 million gallons per year of green gasoline from forest waste that is expected to cost between $450 million and $500 million. The company expects to produce 1 billion gallons of its fuel annually by 2020.
The biofuels plant will salvage wood waste from renewable forests in Central Louisiana and adjacent regions and use that biomass as a feedstock. Sundrop Fuels also will extract hydrogen from abundant supplies of Louisiana natural gas, combining the hydrogen in a proprietary reactor with carbon extracted from wood waste.

The result — up to 50 million gallons of fuel a year — will represent the world’s first renewable green gasoline that’s immediately adaptable to existing pumps, pipelines, engines and transportation infrastructure.
Colorado-based Sundrop Fuels will create 130 manufacturing jobs and 20 research and development jobs in Louisiana, with construction of the facility beginning in 2012, hiring beginning in 2013 and full commercial operation starting in 2014.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., which holds the leading position for natural gas reserves in the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, has provided a $175 million investment for a 50 percent stake in Sundrop Fuels. Other investors include a pair of major venture capital firms, Oak Investment Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Terrabon

Last year, Terrabon exceeded its goal of producing 70 gallons of renewable gasoline per ton of MSW using its patented acid fermentation technology, MixAlco, paired with CRI/Criterion’s renewable fuel catalyst technologies. The company’s demonstration plant in Bryan used cafeteria waste and paper shreddings from Texas A&M University for the trial.

Cool Planet

We recently profiled Cool Plant in “[LL] Cool Planet Rocks the Bells”, and wrote: “To date, most of the buzz about Cool Planet has generally focused on its astonishing array of investors – Google, BP Technology Ventures, GE, ConocoPhillips, Constellation Energy and NRG, among them…Its not hard to see why companies are excited about investing in Cool Planet. With operating costs of $1.00 to $1.15 per gallon, and adding another 13 cents or so for the capital costs (amortized over 15 years) – well, you get the picture. It’s drop-in, renewable gasoline, in prospect, for about 50 percent less than you can currently buy unrefined crude oil.”

The Bottom Line

There’s been much progress on green gasoline in the past year. All five have completed pilots. Terrabon, Cool Planet and Primus are in the process of reaching demonstration-scale. Sundrop, from the reports, will be ready to reach commercial scale with its 50 million gallon facility by early 2014.

The limiting factor? To make biomass-to-gasoline work, you generally need to start with an ultra-low cost feedstock – waste residues or uber-yield energy crops.

The problem is in the oxygen. Moving from a carbohydrate (biomass) to a hydrocarbon, you have to blow off the oxygen, and it generally is taken off by processes that produce carbon dioxide or water, so you can lose some carbon or hydrogen along the way. That’s takes the yields down significantly, and 70 gallons per ton is conventionally at the high end of possibilities.

There are workarounds. Cool Planet has developed a biomass fractionator which it says allows it to conserve hydrogen and carbon. Sundrop gets extra hydrogen from natural gas.

But generally, in that 70 gallons per ton range, unless you are starting with sub-$70 feedstock, you are over $1 per gallon by the time you have acquired feedstock. That’s why Terrabon, which can utilize zero-cost MSW, has some built in advantages. And the wood-based processes like CORE, Sundrop and Primus can access low-cost wood biomass and, in the case of Sundrop, super low-cost natural gas.

Leaving Cool Planet with the challenge of finding enough high-yield miscanthus to get the cost per ton down for energy crops. It says it can get 3000 gallons per acre from Repreve Renewables miscanthus. We’ll watch that opportunity closely.

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