Primus Green Energy sets sights on drop-in fuel expansion

By Bryan Sims | September 20, 2011

Having already expanded its research and development facility, Hillsborough, N.J.-based Primus Green Energy, a U.S. subsidiary of Israel Corp.’s renewable energy unit IC Green Energy Ltd., is actively scaling up a novel thermochemical biomass-to-liquid process technology with plans for commercial deployment in Plainfield Township, Pa. Primus Green’s technology is capable of converting wood biomass residues and/or herbaceous feedstocks like switchgrass into drop-in-ready gasoline that can immediately and without modification be distributed, sold and consumed exactly the same way standard petroleum-based gasoline can be used in the existing infrastructure.

According to Moshe Ben-Reuven, cofounder and co-CEO of Primus and originator of Primus' proprietary gasificaiton technology, the front end of the company’s process isn’t a Fischer-Tropsch process. Rather, Primus employs a proprietary methanol-to-gasoline process that results in converting high yield syngas, with the use of a catalyst, first into methanol where methanol is then further reformed into light high-octane gasoline without the need for separation or further treatment. Additionally, the firm’s novel thermochemical conversion process is anticipated to perform cost-competitively with fossil fuels without subsidies, utilizing carbon-efficient and high fuel-yielding non-agricultural biomass that don’t compete with food or feed.

“We’ve simplified the process to make it cheaper,” Ben-Reuven told Biorefining Magazine. “It’s important to be cheap in this business because biorefineries tend to be small and the benefits of scale are difficult to accomplish whereas petroleum refiners tend to be huge and difficult to compete with in terms of benefits because of the sheer size of the plant and on a capital-per-gallon basis.”

At its N.J. facility, Primus is capable of processing one metric ton of bone dry biomass feedstock into approximately 80-90 gallons of gasoline, according to Ben-Reuven, which equates to a rate of about 10 kilograms of gasoline yield per hour. Ben-Reuven said that these results validate Primus’ research and development efforts during scale-up for commercial deployment.

“We’re a step away from commercialization with this size because of particulars of scaling up that we embrace,” Ben-Reuven said. “Scalability is very important and it’s on the forefront of what we’re doing here in our technology development.”

For its first commercial facility in Pennsylvania, Primus intends to leverage partnerships with local farms for agricultural land for biomass feedstock to support Primus’ plans for continued production scale-up and operational growth. The commercial facility is anticipated to have a processing capacity of 40,000 metric tons of biomass per year with an annual gasoline output volume of 3.2 million gallons.

Construction is expected to take approximately 24 months to complete after it breaks ground, which could be by the end of this year, according to Yom-Tov Samia, president of IC Green Energy. Currently, Primus’ research facility in Hillsborough employs about 35 employees and plans are to expand staff within the next six months. Primus’ commercial facility in Pennsylvania, according to Samia, is expected to generate about 36 full-time jobs with more to come shortly thereafter.

In addition to producing a commercially viable biobased gasoline for the transportation fuel market, Primus’s thermochemical conversion process can also be applied to produce other drop-in fuels. The company currently has a technology and engineering cooperation and teaming agreement with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to develop biobased jet fuel.

According to Ben-Reuven, the company intends to use the same family of catalysts as used in its process to produce gasoline, but would be tweaked to produce distillate fuels like diesel and jet fuel, but mostly jet fuel, he said.

“This process will be making those distillates as well as gasoline in some combination,” Ben-Reuven explained. “We intend to move in that direction once we can establish making gasoline in a high-yield industrial environment. Once we do, we’ll move on and go into the similar process that makes, in parallel, both distillates and gasoline. Once we’re in that position we’ll have basically enabled the replacement of the crude oil barrel.”

According to Samia, Primus’ first planned commercial biorefinery in Pennsylvania could be the first of several commercial expansion phases for the company where woody biomass and/or dedicated energy crops are abundant. Samia cited Florida, Maine or Minnesota as other possible sites where the company could potentially replicate its commercial  strategy of deploying its technology commercially to deliver cost-competitive drop-in fuels in the marketplace.

“The U.S. is the first market we’re aiming,” he said. “We believe we can implement the same technology in other areas of the world too.”