From Aircraft Brakes and Beer Cans to Renewable Energy

By Anna Simet | May 16, 2014

This morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Sam Waver of Tennessee-based Proton Power.

I knew it was going to be a good conversation when he told me was born in good old N.D., my native state.

You may not have heard of Proton Power, but that’s because they’ve been working quietly over many years to perfect a technology that uses biomass to produce low-cost hydrogen for conversion into electricity heat, or synthetic fuels.

A little background on Weaver—he has a PhD in metallurgical engineering (metallurgical engineers design metal parts, study properties of metals and solve problems in manufacturing). Many years ago, he began his career working at Oakridge National Laboratory, and six years later, he set out on his own as a serial entrepreneur. That’s what he’s been doing for the past 44 years, and for 42 of them, he’s worked with his partner, Dan Hensley.

Offering an example of the kinds of things he and Hensley have accomplished, Sam said they started up and sold off a business that manufactures the brakes for Boeing 767s and 777s. They’ve also developed the following products:

-The first 2800C production furnaces for high strength, high modulus carbon fibers

-Ceramic punch technology and equipment to make Coors the thinnest aluminum beer cans in the world

-Neutron absorbers for nuclear power plants with 87 percent worldwide market share

-Test and research reactor fuel which provided radioisotopes that served 10 million people annually.

In the ‘80s, Weaver and Hensley worked to make carbon fibers by means of a pyro process and rayon, and along with that came managing the hydrogen flame coming out the reactor, Weaver said. Years later, the partners realized they may have overlooked a huge opportunity: utilizing the hydrogen to make energy. So after coming out of a brief retirement in 2007, Weaver and Hensley began work that would result in their now-patented, Cellulose to Hydrogen Power (CHyP) technology.

They spent a few years getting through the technical risk stage, continuing on to pursuit of commercialization, and today seem to be well on their way to success. “The focus of all of this was to produce an energy source that’s cost-competitive with fossil fuels,” Weaver said.

 The feedstock agnostic technology—they’ve tested 50 different kinds—sends biomass through a gasification process, and from the hydrogen-rich gas stream (up to 65 percent), electricity, heat and liquid fuels can be produced. For liquid fuels, its renewable diesel in particular, Weaver said. “It’s a rough-end renewable diesel,” he said. “The process is very different than what everybody else is using. We did go down that path for 16 months ourselves, but there were all kinds of complications because you’re fighting nature at every step….it can be done, but was painful. We had clues there was a better way, which we now refer to as our Christmas miracle, as we figured it out right before [Christmas], and now we’re getting oxygen-free hydrocarbons.”

Sam said if feedstock can be acquired for less than $40 per bone dry metric ton, electricity off the backend will be low-cost, about $59 per megawatt hour. For liquid fuels, he projected about $1.75 per gallon.

He mentioned that since the system is modular, there are no scale-up issues—more units can be added. So far, the smallest unit Proton Power has quoted was 250 kilowatts, and the largest 500 MW. There are sweet spots, he added, with about 5 to 10 MW for power, and about 50,000 liters per day, or a plant with a capacity of about 4.8 MMgy.

But electricity in North America can be a hard sell, as it is so cheap, Weaver said. “Most of the conversation around electricity is offshore, but our first power generation unit is actually only about seven miles away at Wampler’s Farm Sausage.”

That’s the only installation right now, but Sam said the company has $700 million in signed contracts, mostly for liquid fuel.

Who are the companies involved? Well, without being specific enough to violate privacy agreements, one is a trucking firm, and another is one of the largest lumber mills in the world, which Weaver said will use sawdust to produce about 60 MMgy of liquid fuel. The company is also under contract by a Singapore-based company to build a liquid fuel plant in Tennessee, he said.

A full-size demo unit is set to come on line any day now in Rockwood, Tenn., Weaver added, after five years of running prototypes.  

Click here to the presentation Weaver gave at the University of Tennessee’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, in early May.