Local visionaries design a mini fuel refinery with big possibilities.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Tucked away behind an unmarked door in a hangar behind the Marina Municipal Airport resides a grease-smeared contraption small enough fit on a forklift – a peculiar maze of coils, pipes and gauges – that looks equipped for alien contact.
Besides adrenaline junkies en route to neighboring Skydive of Monterey Bay, not many have set eyes on this mechanical miscellany. If they did, they probably didn’t realize that they were looking at a reactor that produces pure diesel fuel made entirely of plants in an unprecedented way.
Peterson Conway hopes this tiny reactor will help start a boom that will change the very production and sourcing of renewable fuels. The Renewable Fuel Products, Inc. co-founder likes to think of it as the PC of fuel: Just as mainframe computer technology was expensive and centralized until the invention of the microprocessor put personal computing into people’s hands, so was bio-refining before this.
“Once you make refining really cheap and very mobile,” he says, “you’re going to have an explosion of people producing feedstocks – palm, algae, jatropha, whatever it is.”
Conway met business partner Peter Bell in 2006, when Conway was managing GreenFuel Technology’s first commercial algae-to-biofuels pilot, and formed the firm to create a non-food-based renewable fuel generator in 2007. The two began research at UC Davis in 2008, later moving to Stanford and eventually to Marina. Conway now lives with his wife and newborn daughter on a 16-acre farm in his native Carmel Valley.
The two are old hands at venture capitalism – Bell was chief executive of biodiesel distributor Distribution Drive and CEO of software company Flagship Systems, Inc., and Conway helped found Xoom.com, a Paypal-related e-commerce company. But they still have their work cut out securing investors for mass renewable fuel production. Bell, a South Africa native known for publicizing biodiesel with the help of Willie Nelson, is wryly realistic about the limitations of alternate fuels, saying sources like algae face a “dirty dozen” of technological hurdles. But he says bioengineering is constantly closing the gap. “There’s a lot of activity, and it’s likely that [the technology] will get there,” he says. “It’s just a matter of when.”
And they keep their hands a lot dirtier than most venture capitalists. Conway built an algae-to-biofuels system in his parents’ barn; today his hands are constellations of scabs and cuts – evidence of maintenance from the reactor’s first trial run. The trial produced 600 gallons of fuel, the reactor running continuously for a little over a month. During the pilot, Conway slept in a tent across the street, performing on-the-fly fixes with wrenches almost too greasy to hold and collecting the fuel bucket by bucket. (He now uses it to run his truck). Now he will strip, clean and reconstruct it before it’s time for another trial.
The beauty of the reactor – built at Carmel Iron Works, within walking distance of Conway’s childhood home – is three-fold. For one, the machine can produce a renewable, hydrocarbon-based fuel that burns more cleanly than petroleum-based diesel, emitting no nitrogen oxide or sulphur oxide, with the same chemical specifications as petroleum diesel, so it can work in diesel engines without damaging machines or voiding warranties.
Two, Conway explains, it doesn’t require a methanol or hydrogen catalyst during the refining process – ingredients that are hard to get.
Three, it’s small. Today larger systems predominate, and producers usually gather massive volumes of vegetable oil from a number of sources. Little refineries could anchor small independent communities.
“You’re going to take billion-dollar refineries, and shrink them to $10,000 or even $3,000 refineries,” Conway says, “so people can produce their own fuel very remotely.”
Initially, RFP hopes to run reactors in biodiesel refineries like Earthbound Farms’ San Jose plant. “This is where biodiesel is going,” Conway says.
But they get revved about Bell’s trailblazing take on a poverty alleviation. His Multifunctional Rural Fuel Platform mates with their diesel engine to power water pumps, grinding mills and electric generators. Any community that can grow a crop could create its own energy.
Bell and Conway hope to implement the platforms in Afghanistan, using soy. They have just begun talking to the U.S. military about deploying the platforms to rural villages, where the U.S. government already subsidizes thousands of acres of soy production, Conway says. He eventually hopes to install the technology in Africa as well, using jatropha, a promising biodiesel source.
“It’s turning aid on its head,” he says, “in that this technology can be distributed to places where refining wouldn’t have happened before.”