It may only amount to a drop in the bucket for a nation as thirsty for oil as the United States, but a Hillsborough company is betting it can convert wood pellets and other biomass into a renewable gasoline.
Primus Green Energy, an 11-year-old company, already has produced fuel samples from a pilot plant located in a three-building complex off of Route 206, just north of Princeton. It now is building a demonstration plant at the facility and hopes to break ground next year on a commercial plant.
It's no small gamble. The privately held company has raised nearly $40 million from its funder, IC Green Energy, a subsidiary of publicly traded Israel Corp. It hopes to raise another $50 million to $100 million this year to help pay for the new commercial plant, a facility that would convert 44,000 tons of wood pellets into 4.8 million gallons of "green gasoline."
Eventually, the company hopes to build a full-scale commercial facility that would convert up to 530,000 tons of wood pellets and other biomass into 75 million to 80 million gallons of gasoline each year, according to George Boyajian, vice president of business development for Primus.
"What is really pushing us is the military has a mandate to achieve energy security," Boyajian said yesterday while giving a pair of reporters a tour of its Hillsborough plant.
New Jersey, too, has recognized the potential of biomass to help the state achieve aggressive renewable energy goals, but, so far, that has not led to much action. There are more than 4 million tons of "practically recoverable" biomass resources in the state, enough to supply 9 percent of the Garden State's electricity and up to 5 percent of its highway vehicle fuel.
"It's the most promising area we have in facing the oil challenge," Joanna Underwood, president of Energy Vision, told a forum on biomass held by the Christie administration late last year. Her organization is a national nonprofit group committed to promoting the most rapid transition for the U.S. to sustainable energy and transportation.
The nation has spent billions of dollars promoting ethanol, a biomass fuel derived from sugars, but Boyajian argued his company's so-called green gasoline has much more benefits than ethanol.
"This has one-and-a-half times the energy ethanol has," he said. "It has a lot more juice."
Unlike ethanol, the gasoline produced by Primus is a high-quality drop-in substitute, which the company says is virtually indistinguishable from gasoline produced from fossil fuels. The company plans to sell the gasoline to refiners and blenders to be used in regular gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel.
The company also says its conversion process will result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions when compared with traditional fossil fuels, achieving up to an 80 percent reduction from emissions of petroleum-based products.
How expensive will the so-called green gasoline be? According to Boyajian, once the company commences full-scale production, it expects to sell it at $2 per gallon, although those costs will rise as refiners and blenders add fossil fuels.
Primus has yet to determine where it will locate its first full-scale commercial plant, but Boyajian said the company has been advised it could trim tens of millions of dollars off its costs if it locates the facility near a refinery.
New Jersey has four operating oil refineries, but it also has been talking with Pennsylvania officials, he said. "We're not going to rule anything out."
Still, the company's business model includes using natural gas as a replacement for biomass, if necessary. With prices of natural gas at near record lows, that seems a sound a business decision. Boyajian noted the company pays more for its wood pellets than what it would pay for natural gas at today's prices.