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I am speeding down New Jersey’s highways, propelled by gasoline with a dash of ethanol, an alcoholic biofuel brewed from stewed corn kernels. As I drive through the outskirts of the township of Hillsborough, in the center of the state, I see that spring has brought with it a bounty of similar “biomass,” as the fuel industry likes to call plants. Trees line the road and fresh-cut grass covers the sidewalks as I pull into the business park that is home to Primus Green Energy—a company that has been touting a technology to transform such biomass into a green and renewable form of gasoline.

But there’s a hitch. The boom in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a technique in which horizontal drilling and high-pressure jets of water are deployed to release gas trapped in sedimentary shale rock, has made natural gas cheap and plentiful. That’s not bad for Primus, whose technology can make gasoline from natural gas, biomass, or even low-grade coal, such as lignite or peat. This versatility makes Primus a potential part of what has been called the “olive economy”—companies that are neither bright green nor darkest black, but combine environmentally-friendlier technologies with older and dirtier ones in order to compete. In fact, Primus may become a leader in advancing this kind of technology. “We can be as dark as you want or as green as you want,” says geologist, serial entrepreneur, and Primus salesman George Boyajian.

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In July, President Barack Obama gave a major speech on climate change that described natural gas as a “transition fuel” towards the “even cleaner energy economy of the future.” But Primus’s trajectory raises the question of whether natural gas is a boost on the road to a genuinely green fuel, or if it is prolonging our addiction to dirty modes of transport, and taking us on a detour from a low-carbon path.

At the Primus headquarters, I first meet Primus’s chief chemist Howard Fang in front of a prototype of a Primus conversion machine. Fang, who joined the company for what he calls his “semi-retirement,” is avuncular and black-haired. His interests are broad: He spends his spare time writing and reading history, and has authored books on conflict in the Middle East and the role of Christian missionaries in China.

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A lifetime in fuels chemistry left Fang with one burning question: “What is the real solution to the energy crisis?” His career at oil companies BP and ExxonMobil, and engine manufacturer Cummins, spanned not just one but two major energy upheavals—the oil crisis of the 1970s and then its sequel in the first decade of the 21st century, which is arguably still ongoing. These experiences impressed on Fang the importance of securing the fuel supply in such a way as to avoid despoiling the environment. The solution, says the bespectacled chemist, is “nature-sourced biomass or natural gas converted effectively to gas or diesel.”

“We can be as dark as you want or as green as you want,” says Boyajian.

Primus’s original idea was simple: take scrap wood or other biomass, turn it into pellets, and apply pressure and heat (700 degrees Celsius or more) to break it down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Then build this composite “syngas,” shorthand for “synthetic gas,” back up into whatever hydrocarbon product is desired—the molecules of eight carbon and 18 hydrogen atoms known as iso-octane that are a measure of the quality of conventional gasoline, or the longer chains of similar hydrocarbons that comprise diesel or jet fuel. Because plant biomass absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, the emissions produced by burning the biofuel should balance out overall—every molecule of CO2 emitted when the fuel is burned was previously absorbed by the plant that made the fuel.

The story of the search for such green fuel is littered with disappointments, however. Major companies brew ethanol in large quantities in the United States. It is routinely added to gasoline (at levels of around 10 percent, on its way to 15 percent) as a way to improve combustion, reduce pollution, and support industrial corn farmers. But most ethanol is still made from the edible kernels of corn plants, instead of the inedible cellulose that was promised in the heady days of the mid-2000s, when Congress passed a spate of laws promoting biofuel production. Since 1978, the ethanol industry has enjoyed subsidies and tax credits to the order of 40 cents per gallon, and now produces an annual dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River each summer as a result of fertilizer washing off the endless cornfields of the Midwest. But ethanol is unlikely to ever fully replace conventional fossil fuels, since it is more difficult to transport, produces a fraction of the energy of oil, and would require engines to be refitted or replaced on a massive scale.

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Hence the interest in “drop-in” biofuels as a substitute for conventional fuels in existing cars, planes, and trucks. The problem is not one of infrastructure, but chemistry: Companies must find a way to economically imitate and fast-track a process for which time and geology have done most of the work in conventional fossil fuels. The energy in these fuels is the pent-up power of ancient sunlight, which billions of photosynthetic microorganisms soaked up before dying, fossilizing, and turning into the hydrocarbon-rich stew we know as petroleum, and from which we refine gas, diesel, and jet fuel, among other products.  In theory, then, it should be possible to turn the carbohydrates and other chemicals that store energy for today’s living things into the hydrocarbons we rely on for transportation.

Potential routes to such “green crude” include algae, other photosynthetic organisms, and specialty microbes engineered to spit out hydrocarbons. Biofuel company Solazyme has a contract to supply United Airlines with 20 million gallons of algal jet fuel, and teamed up with a green fuel-station network to offer biodiesel in a test run in San Francisco’s Bay Area. But it takes a lot of water—and a lot of energy to move that water around—in order to grow algae in large quantities, and tailor-making microbes is expensive at its current scale. As a result, companies are diversifying. Algal fuel producer Sapphire Energy is now focusing on isolating the genetic traits in the ancestors of all plants that might be usefully incorporated into other crops. Solazyme is making oils and specialty fats to sell at high margins to cosmetics and food companies, as is would-be microbial fuel-maker Amyris. The industry for “advanced biofuels is literally in its infancy,” concedes Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme CEO.

The energy in these fuels is the pent-up power of ancient sunlight, which billions of photosynthetic microorganisms soaked up before dying.

The allure of Primus’s technology is its promise to harness waste wood and other inedible biomass that would otherwise be thrown into landfills, and turn it into a renewable source of gasoline. Its “syngas to gasoline plus” process consists, essentially, of four chemical reactors. One turns the syngas into methanol. The next makes methanol into a molecule known as dimethyl ether, or DME in chemist-speak. In the third reactor, catalysts known as zeolites knit DME into gasoline, in the most expensive and energy-intensive part of the process. The fourth reactor eliminates some of the unwanted byproducts that cause the resulting fuel to congeal at low temperatures.

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The key is the zeolites, porous minerals made up of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen that allow the desired chemical reactions to take place. Both Primus and a conventional oil refinery employ zeolites to manipulate hydrocarbons. At an oil refinery, these catalysts help crack and sort hydrocarbons broken down from crude oil. At Primus, heat and pressure allow zeolites to build gasoline hydrocarbons from the smaller molecules of syngas. Such “catalysts are a bit of a dark art,” says Boyajian. He spars with Fang over whether or not the company will one day make their own. Fang does not accept Boyajian’s need for secrecy, and would be more than happy to reveal all those dark arts—a prospect that makes the affable Boyajian nervous and tight-lipped. For now, the fledgling company buys the necessary catalysts off the shelf and must sign agreements not to examine these zeolites too closely.

Using different catalysts in the reactors, Fang notes, the company could spit out diesel or jet fuel instead of gasoline. And for every 100 kilograms of syngas, he says, Primus can make 30 kilograms of gasoline or more, using a continuous looping system within the machine that eliminates the need for wasting energy to convert gases to liquids along the way. Little red containers of Fang-made gasoline record its characteristics, scrawled on masking tape affixed to the sides: low vapor pressure, a higher-than-average octane content of around 93, and a favorable absence of sulfur or benzene. Oil prices have been rising over the last month, and are currently at more than $100 per barrel; the company estimates that its gasoline costs as little as that derived from oil at $65 per barrel—and could cost as little as $2 per gallon, or about half the price gas currently goes for at local pumps, to produce at a full-sized facility, even though such an industrial plant would require a lot of capital to build.

However, the machine Fang shows me is not running on the biomass that Fang originally tested: wood chips, switchgrass, canary grass, miscanthus. Instead, it churns through natural gas, turning methane into syngas. Making long hydrocarbons from the single carbon in methane molecules is “very easy,” he assures me.  But “natural gas is not true green,” he concedes. “There is no benefit in [the reduction of] greenhouse gases. Biomass is still true green.”

Natural gas from the fracking boom has revolutionized the global energy landscape—particularly in the United States, the world’s biggest producer of shale gas. But it is also controversial. Gas burns cleaner, but it still produces around half the greenhouse emissions of its dirtier cousins like coal, not including the excess methane that leaks from fracking sites and the pipelines that transport the gas. Fracked gas can also contaminate groundwater supplies. And while in 2012 it brought America’s carbon footprint down to its lowest level in 20 years, relying on it in the long-term will make it hard to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, as is required to combat climate change.

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As the price of natural gas slid in response to the glut of shale gas, Primus changed gears in mid-2012 to move away from biomass and to focus on making syngas from natural gas. This is not a new idea: ExxonMobil built a plant in New Zealand in 1986 to turn natural gas into methanol and then gasoline, but abandoned its efforts when the price of petroleum dropped dramatically in the mid 1990s. Now, though, natural gas is cheap and attractive. Boyajian has a map of all the shale formations in North America tacked to the wall of his office. “The world is full of shale,” he notes.

An earlier version of Primus’ machine, tuned to process biomass, sits swathed in silvery insulating tape in a locked and darkened lab. “Right now it is abandoned,” Fang says. The company insists that the statement doesn’t apply to Primus’s biomass efforts more generally. “This is the way to get to biofuels,” says Primus CEO Robert Johnsen, of the gas to gasoline process, through a tight smile. “Will we be the ones to get there? Maybe.”

Natural gas from the fracking boom has revolutionized the global energy landscape.

Will natural gas be a bridge for Primus to green fuel, or will it be too cheap and attractive to resist as a permanent substitute for biomass? For the moment, the company seems keen to squeeze what it can out of the shale gale. With the help of more than $50 million in Israeli money, Primus is building a demonstration plant the size of a house near its headquarters in New Jersey, due to open this year. The location is off the map—even Google won’t guide you there, as if it were some secretive skunk works facility, which is how the company likes to think of it. The plant will take natural gas from the local utility, run it through its proprietary set of chemical reactions and, on the far end, out of a spigot, will come gasoline—12.7 gallons per hour at full capacity. The company’s first commercial plant, due to start construction next year, will likely be located near a source of natural gas.

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Scaling up the technology this way will reduce the overhead costs per unit of gasoline—that is, the cost of fabricating the reactors and buying the zeolites and feedstocks. Plus, Primus’ technology may prove economical enough at a scale small to allow its plants to be distributed close to remote natural gas wells or even sources of biomass. It is no coincidence that the company based itself in verdant New Jersey, “the Garden State”; proximity to biomass is crucial for producers, because transporting heavy and unwieldy wood or corn stalks across large distances tends makes the end product too costly and undercuts the greenhouse-gas savings that are a large part of its appeal.

As I prepare to drive off, Fang carts out one of his collection of red plastic gas cans and dumps a liter or so of Primus-made, natural gas-to-gasoline fuel into my tank. A test car tooled around on it last summer, with no problems. The hope is to be able to charge a premium for the higher-octane premium product. “People pay twice as much for organic food,” Boyajian says. “So why not pay more for green gasoline?” My fuel sensor can tell the difference: it registers an anomalously high miles-per-gallon number.

Fang gives me two thumbs up as I pull away, watching me drive off on his preferred solution to the energy crisis. It’s unclear whether Primus will ever find the occasion to turn back towards biogasoline—and whether that’s a long-term fix for the world’s energy and environmental conundrum. Striving to make cleaner fuel for standard, dirty combustion engines may reinforce drivers’ loyalty to today’s technology. Such lock-in makes a true revolution difficult until some alternative energy source—whether battery-driven electric cars or engines modified to burn carbon-neutral, as-yet-unmade biofuels—offers the kind of convenience and low cost that justifies replacement.

At present, Primus appears set to become part of a sprawling infrastructure that reinforces the incentives to use greenhouse gas-producing, gasoline-like fuels. And for all those concentrated octanes in my tank, I still have to pull into a Shell station to fill up on conventional gasoline, blended with corn ethanol, in order to drive home.

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David Biello is the Environment and Energy Editor for Scientific American. He is currently working on a book about the Anthropocene.

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