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Chemical engineers turn Wisconsin's waste into energy

James Dumesic, Randy Cortright and Mark Daugherty

From left: Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor James Dumesic, researcher Randy Cortright, and CEO Mark Daugherty formed Virent Energy Systems to commercialize catalytic reforming technology. (Photo: Bob Rashid) (large image)

Alchemists of the Middle Ages sought the philosopher's stone; a material that could transmute common metals into gold. The chemical engineers and founders of Virent Energy Systems have invented something much more useful, an environmentally friendly method of turning waste into fuel and energy.

Cheese whey, corn stover, paper mill sludge and waste streams from food processors and many other businesses are rich in carbohydrates or sugars, the same energy source used by plants and animals. UW-Madison College of Engineering researcher Randy Cortright and Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic have developed a single-step, low-temperature, catalytic reforming process that can generate hydrogen and a wide range of fuels from sugars, ethylene glycol and methane. Working with UW alumnus Mark Daugherty, a mechanical engineer (BS, '78; MS, '80; PhD, '91; PhD NEEP,'91) and lawyer with extensive experience in fuel-cell technology, the three formed Virent Energy Systems to move the technology from the engineering laboratory to the marketplace.

"The biggest problem we have with this technology is that we have a very wide range of products that we can develop from it," says Cortright. "We could refine the system to generate hydrogen on a microchip to power a small fuel cell in the milliwatt range, and we can scale it all the way up to make commercial quantities of hydrogen from biomass."

Initially, the company is focused on two areas; battery replacement and power generation from waste streams. In the first case, Virent's technology could make powering portable devices dramatically more convenient. Batteries could be replaced with small cartridges of glycerol; a clear, sweet-tasting, colorless, odorless, viscous liquid. When moved past a platinum catalyst at the proper temperature and pressure, most of this nontoxic, nonflammable substance converts to very pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Reacting in a fuel cell, the hydrogen in a small cartridge of glycerol could power a laptop computer or other device for hours.

"People don't want to have to plug in their portable devices and wait for them to charge. It's not portable if you're waiting for it to charge. With this concept, you simply insert another cartridge of glycerol," Cortright says.

Energy companies, utilities and government have already shown great interest in the second application, generating power from waste streams. In fact, the Wisconsin Division of Energy has awarded three Focus on Energy grants to Virent Energy Systems for both business development, and research and development.

"The energy market is slowly transforming and the demand for energy efficiency and renewable energy is growing," says Don Wichert, chief of energy resources for the Wisconsin Division of Energy. "The timing of this technology couldn't be better. The federal government is behind a big push for hydrogen production and we're hoping Wisconsin and the Midwest can be a focal point. This is the kind of technology that could put Wisconsin on the energy map and it demonstrates how the university is one of the best resources we have."

Virent demonstration photo

In a Virent demonstration unit, glycerol is converted to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen feeds a fuel cell (center) which powers the propeller. (large image)

A bubble of hydrogen

A bubble of hydrogen (large image)

Virent researcher Ken Kenyon (BS, ChemE, '64) is using the Focus on Energy grant to build a bench-top-scale, hydrogen fuel-cell generator in the five kilowatt range. Soon after, the company plans to develop larger-scale systems to turn food-processing effluent, paper-making sludge, agricultural waste streams and other carbohydrate rich discards into fuel. Ultimately, these systems will feed hydrogen to fuel cells to generate power, but first Virent will focus on existing markets for other fuels that feed gas turbines and internal combustion engines.

"One of the advantages of our process is that it can be adjusted to produce other fuels," says Dumesic. "For example, we plan to produce butane from agricultural waste. Our technology would require much less time and space than anaerobic digesters currently in use. Organisms in a digester take days to process waste. We are working on a system that could convert the same kinds of waste into higher-quality fuels in a matter of minutes."

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is pursuing two patents based on the technology and has granted Virent Energy Systems an exclusive license. In lieu of licensing fees, WARF has taken an equity stake in Virent.

"WARF has been extremely helpful in getting this company up and going," says Cortright. "That allows us to move forward on other issues and get up on our feet. Starting a business is never easy and we are fortunate to have a number of people willing to share the risk, but it will be worth it to get this technology out into the marketplace."

Contact: Mark Daugherty