We gave a big cheer to the January 26 announcement that Greyrock Energy had closed a substantial Series A round for its sister company Infinium, with heavy-hitter investors Amazon, Mitsubishi, and AP Ventures. The amount was not disclosed, but this trio does not make small investments.
As notable as this launch was regionally, it is an even bigger deal in the quest for fuels that do not contribute to climate change. And it is a great story of the vision and persistence of a father and son and a good one to show what the entrepreneurial journey is like. It is worth putting all that in context.
In 2003, Dr. Dennis Schuetzle retired from Ford Motor Company as a VP of International R&D and brought his passion for sustainable fuels to Sacramento. He had a vision of making clean liquid fuels for vehicles and airplanes from renewable sources. He led a team to look at every biomass and waste gasification and conversion processes in the world in order to find the best of them. It was a massive effort, but it uncovered some nuggets. Dennis’ first attempt at the realization of his vision was a company founded in 2006 to convert ag waste biomass into fuel—Pacific Renewable Fuels—originally based in McClellan Park. PRF demonstrated a small gasifier linked to a liquid fuels production unit. Soon he convinced his son, Robert, a successful digital media entrepreneur, to join him and become CEO. In 2011, Robert steered a merger with an Ohio-based biomass company to form Synterra Energy to advance the waste-to-fuels (and chemicals) technology. Synterra successfully demonstrated the technology at a larger scale and with better conversion results.
To that point, the efforts had mostly been funded by federal and state grants and contracts. But father and son realized that to grow would require significant investment only available from the private sector. They needed to find something that was immediately commercial. What was closest to that mark was the conversion of hydrogen-rich syngas into clean diesel fuel. Producing a consistent clean stream of syngas (which is hydrogen and carbon monoxide) from biomass was a daunting challenge. But it was easy to get a clean feed of syngas from natural gas. That was a commercially available technology; nothing new there. What was new was a focus on putting modular plants on remote natural gas wells or remote oil wells that were flaring natural gas to produce clean diesel fuel. That was a source of gas that was being wasted and adding uselessly to the Greenhouse gas burden. The plants were so remote that converting the gas into electricity made no sense. A beefy enough power grid adequate to accept what a power plant would produce was far away and too expensive to extend. Producing a liquid fuel that could be stored in tanks and picked up by tanker trucks occasionally was a much better option. Greyrock Energy was then born.
Greyrock got immediate attention, collected substantial investment, and now has placed its technology in ten plants either in operation or under construction. Customers were very satisfied with the clean liquid fuels part of the technology. But using natural gas as the raw feedstock was not really making the kind of sustainable fuel that would have a big impact on climate change. The feedstock really needed to come from something renewable.
Advances in splitting hydrogen using cheap renewable electricity and in capturing carbon dioxide provided the next stepping stone. Now the clean diesel can be made from renewable sources. That is the foundation of what Infinium will do, and why the big investors are so interested. It will recycle carbon dioxide back into the fuel and close the carbon cycle. It makes a zero net carbon fuel that can be used in existing vehicles and distributed through existing infrastructure. That is especially significant for making aviation fuel, something Amazon clearly likes. We have commented before that this could be a faster path to decarbonization than converting all vehicles to electricity. So to us, that is the most significant consequence of the launch of Infinium.
Apparently, CNBC agrees, picking up the story and sending it out nationwide. That’s a first for our cleantech community as well. Congratulations to Dennis and Robert! It’s been 18 years, but worth it. Most of your original vision is now in place. No wonder you are so excited.
You can learn even more by visiting Infinium’s new website. Note the cool logo, too.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStarts Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.