Return of the Pyromaniax: Proton Power and its hydrous pyrolysis process for super low-cost hydrogen

May 8, 2014 |


A new wonder technology to behold: über low-cost hydrous pyrolysis for power and fuels.

What’s up at the front lines with the pyro kings?

A few weeks ago, in our continuing coverage of recent advances in cheap, affordable biobased hydrogen — meaning sub-$2 per kilo hydrogen gas — enough to light up the economics of fuel cell vehicles — we briefly profiled a closely-followed yet slightly mysterious pyro company called Proton Power.

At that time, we related brief notes received last summer from Jim Bierkamp, their business development manager:

“PPI has been in existence since 2009, and what we have come up with is basically a way to make inexpensive hydrogen – we can do it for less than $2/kg.  We are doing this using a patented pyrolysis process that we call CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power).  We have been flying under the radar from a publicity standpoint, but that is about to change in that we will be starting up our first electricity-generating project – a 750kw switchgrass to electricity project utilizing our CHyP technology – and we will be bringing a 1M gal/yr liquid fuels plant online in 3Q of this year at which we will be demonstrating that we can make diesel fuel, for example, for about $1.75/gal.  We currently have an order backlog of $320M in real projects.”

Readers asked for more. What is this company, exactly? So, this week we spoke with company co-founder Sam Weaver.

The skinny on Proton Power

The bottom line, Sam tells us: “If we’re going to solve this problem of the sustainable economy, the technologies have to be cost competitive with fossil fuels. This process is carbon-negative, producing hydrogen gas or liquid fuels, plus a high temp biochar that is very stable in the ground. It’s a high PH (10-11) biochar with a surface area like an activated carbon.”

Here’s the big takeaway: “Fundamentally, if we can get feedstock lower than $40/ton we can be lower than gas as the lowest cost producer of electricity.”

Who are these guys? Weaver and his partner have built four companies over 42 years, and retired a few years back, “but both my sons said they knew I was not really going to retire, and then my partner called and said ‘let’s do something again’. And one thing we talked about, a product we made late to mid 80s — we made carbon fibers using a pyro process and rayon. And our reactors, we remembered, had a huge flame coming out of reactor, and we had to be so careful about that hydrogen flame.”

So, hydrogen. Or, rather, low-cost hydrogen. Why? What’s the secret to high yields?

“It’s not typical pyrolysis, this is hydrous pyrolysis, where utilize some of the water to create the hydrogen. And, our system is dynamic, we are pulling the gas away, and we get a different equilibrium (than other developers). you’ll get a different equilibrium.”

How wet can the biomass be? “We can use 40 percent moisture for power, but for fuel we need it to be dry as possible, and in that case with get 15% hydrogen content with bone-dry biomass.”

Input costs

What about input costs for sub $2 per kg hydrogen? “Typically we use $60 / bone dry metric ton for feedstocks.”

How far is the company along in terms of building a team, and getting third-party confirmation of the results? “When we build a company we build a team – never a one man show, right now we have almost 100 people, 20 are engineers. After we built our first reactor, and it worked just the way it was supposed to, so we brought in Shaw Environmental Group to make sure we weren’t just fooling ourselves. They confirmed what we were seeing.”

Business model

What about the business model? “Our business model is different, we are manufacturers of turn key systems for others, most others are owner operators.”

Back to liquid fuels for a moment — with pyro system you’re getting bio-oil, which has required hydrotreating to be utilized by refiners. Is that what’s happening here?

More on the way? What’s still in stealth at Proton Power?

“We have the advantage of making our own hydrogen. But i tell you, we had come up with something but it was very difficult. You see, back in the early 2000s we built a system for the University of Tennesee. We headed down the standard path in cellulose to liquid fuels. Like everyone on that path, we had the same catalyzed fluidized bed, and ended up with same thing. We should have named it acidic oxygenated stew of molecules, refiners are not able to use it.

“But, recently we saw a better way, and just before Christmas we had sort of a miracle, where right out of the process we are getting hydrocarbon molecules, via a very different process. We were stunned, but we’re not really talking about that, we’re still writing the patents.”

More on the company

The website is here.

Here’s a cool vid.

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